Friday, April 1, 2011

Top marks for “Summer Blast” novel

Three women, war, marriage, divorce, New York, Dubai, a grumpy uncle, a wily teta (Arabic for grandmother) and of course Madonna… all combined in a novel, and by a friend at that!

These are some of the ingredients in Summer Blast – When War Threatens Lebanese Women’s Plans, the just released novel by Lebanese writer Dania El-Kadi (@Lebanese_writer on Twitter), a fresh new voice amid Middle Eastern women writers.

The 242-page book made its debut at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair on March 17 and in Dubai on March 18 (see Lebanese book launch at DIFC, 20 March 2011), where I got my signed copy! It’s the first fiction title for Turning Point Books, the Beirut-based book publishers that see women’s fiction as a fast-growing genre and are introducing new voices to the region.

I was both eager and reluctant to start reading the book for several reasons. Having lived through 15 years of the Lebanon civil war, I haven’t been able to read anything present-day about these events. Although Summer Blast covers the 2006 hostilities, when you’ve lived every moment of these horrendous times, you don’t want to read someone else’s account of them. I was also afraid I wouldn’t appreciate the book and have to stretch the truth about it to Dania.

In Summer Blast, three women -- two cousins and their friend -- have a summer plotted out: final wedding preparations, an impending divorce and a lifelong dream to see Madonna in concert in Paris. When war erupts between the Lebanese resistance and the Israeli army in the summer of 2006, leaving Lebanon cut off from the world, the young women find their plans compromised.

Determined to chase their dreams, Dania El-Kadi has all three characters carrying on stoically, trying to steer their original courses as best they can. Bomb-dodging, land and sea evacuations, confronting stubborn ex-husbands and handling straying boyfriends are some of the mishaps! 

Elyssar must see Madonna live in Paris on August 27
Maya wants to marry her college sweetheart. And to that end proposes to take her wedding by the horns and make it work as scheduled come war or peace! Rouba must reach Kuwait, the setting for her pending divorce. When she finally leaves Lebanon by road to Damascus and arrives in Kuwait, her visa has been canceled so she flies to the Burj al-Arab in Dubai, as you do!  Elyssar must see Madonna live in Paris. It’s her childhood dream, so she orchestrates her own evacuation to New York, smartly salvaging her power career in the process. And there, she falls for Paul… 

Dania’s plot moves between three women in different countries united by the threat posed by the war in Lebanon as well as the real threat of shoe regrets and prewedding weight crises. But Dania El-Kadi also tries to treat the somber matter of the ravages of war and disenfranchised refugees as well as the complex issues of raising stepchildren and infertility. 

The tone is light and easy to read. The plot is helped by a subtle humor (which I remember, one must never lose in wartime) – “I haven’t yet found a man to free me from corporate slavery” that allows the characters to get through the worst of it.  It goes through defiance, attitude and female solidarity between cousins (cousinettes), and friends: Rouba helps Elyssar’s heavily pregnant cousin across the Lebanese border to safety through a precarious journey. Elyssar, a 30-something career woman, bonds with 11-year-old Joumana during their shared sea evacuation ordeal from Beirut…

Lebanese author Dania El-Kadi
The three women, helped along by mobile phones (something we didn’t have during the 1975-1990 civil war), must confront real life issues that afflict those even in a war zone – finding love and fulfillment, balancing a career with family commitments, figuring out a breaking down relationship or a summer fling turned sour.

In all the drama of warfare, the shortages of water and fuel (controlled by Uncle Najeeb), lack of electricity and the fear, there is the bonding and no shortage of sense of humor, which all sounded true and familiar to me.

Some scenes are hilarious, like when Elyssar tries a hairdresser in New York; answering a matchmaker’s ad; averting cellulite disasters; and the unavoidable taxi ride.

There are also wedding dress fittings gone wrong, when Maya’s dress designer Zahy discovers she has put on weight and the whole creation has to be altered. And while Maya is trying hard to get married (“What does a girl have to do to get married in this country?”) Rouba is seeking a divorce from her Kuwaiti husband (“What does a girl have to do to get divorced in this country?”). But what does the husband do to woo his wife back: he cancels her entry visa to Kuwait!

Dania doesn’t leave out runaway stepchildren, impromptu war schooling in a mountain village, diva duels in Dubai and so much more.

I relished reading Summer Blast. The novel flows and is sometimes hard to put down. It made me think how much easier the Lebanon civil war would have been with mobile phones and email. I laughed and gulped in places. It reminded me of the friendships formed in difficult times and the heartbreak of being separated from family and loved ones.

I now look forward to Dania El-Kadi's second novel.

(This post also appears at The Cube, a new blog where a group of Lebanese with a passion for books and reading, of which I am part, review the books we read. You can follow us on Twitter at @TheCubeLB and The Cube, Lebanon on Facebook.)

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