Tag Archives: Max Weiss

States of Passion by Nihad Sirees (transl. Max Weiss): A tale of old Aleppo

Cover imageNihad Sirees is Syrian which is what attracted me to States of Passion with its promise of a glimpse into the world of old Aleppo. Poor Syria is less often in the headlines these days despite her destruction grinding on relentlessly. First published in 1998, Sirees’ novel spins a tale of love, passion and jealousy amongst the female musicians, dancers and singers of 1930s Aleppo, many of whom prefer to take their pleasure with each other.

Our self-deprecating narrator is an administrator for an agricultural bank who seeks shelter from a terrible storm while out assessing farmers for loans. He’s admitted grudgingly to an elegant mansion in the middle of nowhere by a manservant, then greeted effusively by Ismail’s master eager to tell our narrator his story. For five days and nights as the rain beats against the windows, Shaykh Nafeh tells his tale and our narrator becomes riveted, desperate to know how it ends but increasingly worried about the strange noises he hears in the night. Nafeh fell deeply in love with Widad, a young dancer in thrall to the powerful Khojah Bahira who conceived a passion for Widad just as she did for her mother. With the help of a sympathetic go-between, the young couple conducted a covert affair until Bahira found a way to break them apart. What happened to these young lovers, and why is Ismail so determined to prevent our narrator from hearing his master’s story?

Our narrator begins his story with a multitude of protestations about his lack of qualifications for the job, casting doubt on his reliability before going on to unfold this story of passion and jealousy expertly. There are stories within stories in Nafeh’s discursive narrative which begins when Syria had recently negotiated its independence from Paris in 1936. Set against a backdrop of wealthy Aleppo, there are vibrant depictions of all-female societies of musicians, dancers and singers who perform at weddings and for audiences of women who share the performers’ passion for each other, married or not. Syrees has a nice thread of suspense laced with humour running through his narrative as Ismail’s behaviour becomes increasingly baroque in his attempts to prevent our narrator hearing the end of Nafeh’s story. It’s a tale well spun, offering a glimpse of a culture about which I knew nothing and would like to know more. An introduction would have been the icing on the cake.

That’s it from me for a week or so. H and I are off to Norfolk for a spot of walking and probably some reading.

Books to Look Out for in September 2018: Part One

Cover imageMy heart sings with joy at the prospect of several books in September’s publishing schedules. You’ve probably already heard of at least one of them: Kate Atkinson’s Transcription whose announcement made my literary year. Wartime spy, Juliet Armstrong, has moved on from MI5 to the BBC ten years after she was recruited in 1940 but finds herself confronted with her past. ‘A bill of reckoning is due, and she finally begins to realize that there is no action without consequence. Transcription is a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy’ say the publishers and, having already read it, I’d say they’re right. Still mystified as to why Atkinson didn’t win all the prizes for A God in Ruins.

Hard to follow that, I know, but I’ve learned to prick up my ears when a new Sarah Moss is announced. In Ghost Wall, Sylvie is spending the summer with her parents in a Northumberland hut where her father is intent on re-enacting Iron Age life. ‘Haunting Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a young woman sacrificed by those closest to her, and the landscape both keeps and reveals the secrets of past violence and ritual as the summer builds to its harrowing climax’ say the publishers which sounds a world away from Bodies of Light and The Tidal Zone.

Sally Rooney’s quietly addictive Conversations with Friends was a surprise inclusion on my 2017  books of the year list. The more I read it the more it grew on me. Her new novel, Normal People, follows Connell and Marianne, both from the same small town but from very different backgrounds, who win places at Trinity College Dublin. ‘This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person’s life – a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel’ say the publishers promisingly.

Nihad Sirees’ States of Passion sees a Syrian bureaucrat seeking shelter in an old mansion where he hears stories of an all-female society, passions and subterfuge set against the backdrop of the golden age of Aleppo. ‘Sirees spins astonishing literary beauty out of this tangled web of family secrets, and he writes with great humour and warmth about the conflict between past and present in this surprising and unique novel about a lost world’ according to the publishers.

Catherine Lacey’s second novel, The Answers, came with Margaret Atwood’s seal of approval Cover imagewhich must be both a blessing and a curse for an author, setting the bar a tad high. She’s followed it with Certain American States, a collection of twelve short stories which explore loss and longing, apparently. The Answers was stuffed full of smart writing so I’m hoping for the same with this collection although perhaps not the caustic humour given those themes.

That’s it for the first batch of September’s goodies. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have caught your eye. Part two also anticipates some stonkingly good titles although perhaps none to equal Transcription