‘I prefer the edges’ [book review]

A review of The Frightened Ones by Dima Wannous, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette

The clue comes fairly late on in the novel. ‘I don’t dare delve into the depths of things, I prefer the edges. Where I can be poised to escape.’ So says Suleima, the narrator of Dima Wannous’ The Frightened Ones, a novel that skirts around the edges of things, constantly peeking over the rim of the abyss but never launching us fully into it. The black hole at the centre of the novel, the event towards which the characters constantly gravitate but which remains strangely withheld from us, is, of course, the Syrian civil war, a conflict that began in 2011 and continues to tear the country apart to this day.

The Frightened Ones Dima Wannous

In writing about her home country, Wannous – who now lives in London following stints in Paris and Beirut – adopts an apparently simple form of narrative that turns out to be anything but. The novel is initially told from the point of view of Suleima, a young woman whose lover, Naseem, has fled Syria for Germany along with his ailing father. Aloof at the best of times, Naseem is a doctor and writer whom Suleima never seems to have known that well, despite the fact that the novel opens with a memory of their first encounter fifteen years ago. From Germany, Naseem sends Suleima the manuscript of his latest work, a novel narrated from the perspective of a woman who in many ways seems identical to Suleima. The chapters of The Frightened Ones alternate between Suleima and this fictional narrator, always recounted in the first person and containing such similar events that it is very easy to get confused – who now lives in Beirut? Who spent summers with her extended family in a village? And whose father died when she was fourteen, a trauma from which she has never recovered?

Disentangling the two narratives is difficult and, ultimately, pointless. For me, this novel really opened itself when I gave up trying to outguess it and started simply living in the experiences I was reading about, accepting the words on the page before me. Wannous writes in a language that is intimate yet reserved – both narrators willingly offer up details of their lives, but do so in sentences that often seem fractured or jerky, imbued with the awkwardness that comes from knowing someone is watching. Exclamation marks are added where they aren’t really necessary, explanations of people or feelings offered in a way that seems slightly stilted. These are inner lives deliberately handed over for inspection, from which I had the constant, unsettling sense that something was missing. ‘Windows enthralled me’, Suleima tells us at one point, and this is exactly how I felt about this book – it was a window on to the lives of two women through which I shouldn’t really have been looking.

Although this use of language seemed alienating at first, there really could have been no other way of writing this particular novel. At its core is the fact that Suleima and Naseem met in a therapist’s office in Damascus; in fact, Kamil, the therapist, is addressed directly in the very second sentence. (‘Kamil, are you reading this now?’) Concerned just as much with what we tell others as with what we tell ourselves, the entire novel reads a little like a therapy session, offering revelations in words that somehow seem deliberately chosen, maintaining a self-conscious air that prevents the reader ever getting too close. This unusual register demonstrates beautiful work on the part of translator Elisabeth Jaquette, who has consistently and carefully caught a mood that is, I imagine, very hard to pin down in words.

As its title suggests, The Frightened Ones is a novel about fear. Suleima, Naseem and his unnamed narrator are all terrified – burdened by childhood traumas, hurt by difficult relationships, and ultimately broken by the ravages of war. In their own way, each character is ‘someone who belonged nowhere, someone entirely unmoored’, and the constant shifting in narrative voice and setting does much to underline this. Family constellations scatter and regroup, childhood homes are sold and re-visited, the past and the present intermingle in a hazy blur of similar events. The thread that binds it all together is fear – fear of war, fear of pain, fear of loss, fear of death, but most especially fear of fear. ‘Fear matures with us’, Suleima tells Kamil, and in the end we are forced to contend with the challenging notion that being afraid of what we might one day have to fear can often be worse than the thing itself. The result? A labyrinth of fears that is mirrored perfectly by the structure and language of the novel itself.

Despite the fact that the war is a major player in the novel – in many ways the very reason for its existence – it rather tends to take a back seat compared to the major losses experienced by our narrators: namely, the men in their lives. The pain that comes from losing a father or a father figure (Naseem) is repeatedly probed by Wannous, and at times it seems as though our two female narrators are almost entirely defined by absent men – the partners and fathers and therapists who made pronouncements on what they may do and who they are. ‘In war it’s men’s duty to disappear’, Suleima writes at one point, and disappear they do: dying, dismissing their women, fleeing the country; even apparent moments of presence like the ‘writing . . .’ notification on a messaging service fading away into the blank disappointment of a never-sent text.

The Frightened Ones is a book that took me some time to get into, but which I found myself increasingly admiring the more I read. Language, particularly when used in fiction, has an extraordinary ability to convey feelings and experiences, and here it renders beautifully the sense of alienation, a feeling of fragmentation and loss. Reading this novel was an unsettling experience, with the ground constantly shifting beneath my feet, but it conveys lived emotions that might otherwise be impossible to relate to. ‘Books exposed things in me that I was not ready to reveal’, writes our narrator. In sticking to the edges of things, Wannous has done exactly this.

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