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Robin Yassin-Kassab

A Pure Heart

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I was very pleased to discover Rajia Hassib, an excellent writer. This review first appeared hassibat the Guardian.

“A Pure Heart”, Arab-American writer Rajia Hassib’s remarkable second novel, concerns the diverging lives of two sisters, middle-class Egyptian Muslims. Rose, an Egyptologist, marries Mark, an American journalist, and leaves Cairo for a postdoctoral fellowship in New York. She also works at the Met preparing an exhibit on ancient Egypt, curating the letters of the living to the dead.

Gameela, who bristles at Rose’s foreign marriage, is “the only covered woman in the entire family, rebellious in her conservatism”. But this is Rose’s perspective. In her own, Gameela enjoys “an anchored identification with all that surrounds her.” Until her death, apparently at random, in a suicide bombing.

As the novel opens Rose, assuring herself she’s “an archaeologist, not a grave robber”, is sifting through Gameela’s possessions, finding clues which might explain her murder. The reader expects a detective story, but what follows is richer, more complex than that – a deep dive into questions of race, gender, class, religion, and most crucially, into personality.

Gameela finds it “exhausting, to try to reinvent herself. To build a set of values so different from her parents.” Mark reacts against “the idea of a fixed narrative, the lie that is a predetermined destiny.” He finds within himself “different selves competing for attention”. In each character, these interior tensions are as finely drawn out as is the interpersonal drama between lovers, siblings, parents and children.

And as the novel deepens, its vision broadens, visiting New York, West Virginia, rural and urban Egypt. Gameela’s secret life and manner of death are slowly revealed, alongside those of Saaber, the bomber. There is unsentimental but devastating treatment of Egypt’s nightmarish legal system under General Sisi’s counter-revolutionary dictatorship, of the savage class prejudice and postcolonial “self-loathing attitudes” which are one driver toward the embrace of “a religion which promised equality”.

Back in New York, Rose, a personality at once solid and ambiguous, illustrates the divided loyalties of a multicultural life, but also the cohesive links made by love and engagement. Although Rose is central, no single character dominates the book. Rather the web between characters, and between characters and places, overspreads the whole. This, and the restrained but insistent quality of the text makes it feel like a fabric gradually knitting around the reader.

“A Pure Heart” is poised, intelligent, very grown-up writing, equally at home in all its environments.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 3, 2020 at 7:37 pm

Posted in book review

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