It's fiction, set in contemporary Lebanon as well as the ancient Middle East of storytellers. Alameddine stirs up a stew of story here, moving between two ancient stories and two lines of family history of Osama al-Kharrat. Al-Kharrat has returned to Beirut from LosAngeles. His father is dying. His heart and mind return to the prosperous Beirut of his childhood.
Osama's maternal grandfather was a hakawati, or storyteller. Osama's childhood, his grandfather's life, and classic tales of the Middle East, take turns at our attention.
My issue as a reader of a book like this is that I usually prefer one story over the others, and find myself just enduring the others. In this case, I loved the grandfather's story, and was sorry when it came to its end.
Alameddine uses language wonderfully. I kept a vocabulary list at my side.
Throughout this book, one keeps returning to this question--what does "story" mean? I'm distressed that I didn't mark my favorite quote from this book. It's very similar to, "Don't trust the teller. Trust the tale." I've got a fascination for authors who misguide us about their backgrounds--what does it tell about their tale? I find that topic delicious, every time I return to it.
Amy Tan wrote an extensive essay about this book for Amazon. I'm intrigued by her prediction of geat awards for this one. I'm not surprised that it was chosen for the Notable Books list. It is a classic choice for that list--an international setting, a complicated plot, and an author who's nimble with language. I'd describe it as a challenging read, but I do believe that people who love storytelling, or are interested in the Middle East, or who love a family saga, will go for it.
Have you read it? What did you think?