A review of The Stray Cats of Homs by Eva Nour, translated from the Swedish by Agnes Broomé
Writing in the author’s note that comes at the end of The Stray Cats of Homs, Eva Nour explains her name. The pseudonym she uses is a combination of Swedish and Arabic names meaning ‘life’ and ‘light’, two things she hoped to help preserve by writing a fictitious version of her partner’s life story. And while this is by no means a cheerful read – quite the opposite, in fact – there is most definitely a thread of light that runs through it, a determination to survive, and an abundance of feeling that underlines how this book truly is a project born of love.
Sami (the name Nour’s partner is given in the book) was born and raised in the Syrian city of Homs, which came under siege in May 2011 shortly after crackdowns on anti-government protests triggered the Syrian Civil War. The siege lasted three years, ending in May 2014 when rebel forces withdrew to leave the city in government hands. Those who could fled the country, making their way across the border to neighbouring countries like Jordan and Lebanon, or travelling further on to Europe. For the vast majority of those like Sami, known to be associated with opposition forces including the Free Syrian Army, this would mean leaving their homes, families and country of birth for good.
While many of us will have heard of Homs in the context of the siege, The Stray Cats of Homs goes further back than that, offering us a glimpse of a childhood in a country already under immense pressure from an authoritarian regime. At school, Sami and his friends are given military lessons in which they learn to fire guns, and children are brought up to understand that any expression of dissent, however quietly muttered, can reap grave consequences. ‘They watch us because they love us,’ says one of Sami’s friends, speaking of the authorities in a chilling display of childish innocence. Yet growing up there are also freedoms – driving lessons, illicit bottles of wine, stolen moments in bed with a first girlfriend – and a deep-rooted love of family and homeland that make what is to come even harder to bear.
Sami’s failure to duck military service and forcible recruitment to the position of army cartographer is presented to us in a grim, unflinching chronicle which goes on to follow him through an attempted desertion and eventual affiliation with the Free Syrian Army throughout the siege of Homs. Questions of morality and individual responsibility abound, many of them wrapped up in his work for the army, which requires him to draw maps by which troops will navigate their way into cities whose streets are filled with anti-government protestors. His choice becomes an impossible one: aid and abet the killing and injuring of innocent civilians, or put his own and his family’s lives at risk. Nour’s understated, stripped-back prose makes the physical and emotional extremes Sami faces all the more appalling.
The Stray Cats of Homs is a novel based on real life – characters, places and events have been changed or invented partly in order to mask the identities of the real protagonists. For me, however, it read far more like a work of biography than fiction – the linear structure, factual prose style and occasional introductory lines from an unnamed writer (who may well be Nour herself) all combined with the background information on the book to make me struggle to read it as a novel. While I do appreciate the need for concealment, and understand that many elements of the story probably are fictitious, I couldn’t help but feel it would have had greater impact if presented to the world as the biography it reads as. Sami’s story is remarkable, moving, important – and, sadly, entirely believable as a real rather than fictitious life.
Adding to the biographical style, Nour tends to steer clear of too much poetic description or imagery – a pared-down manner of writing that works very well in giving total priority to the story it seeks to convey – yet there were moments in the novel that stuck with me because of their unusual phrasing or simple beauty. Relatively early on, the stars in the night sky are described as ‘tiny tears in silk cloth’, an image that could be expanded into a metaphor for the slow picking apart of the country – one event after another leaving a tiny hole in the cloth of Syria, and eventually causing the entire nation to be rent asunder.
It also, less violently, is a fitting image for the novel itself, and the many points of light contained within it – friendships, family relationships, unexpected moments of natural beauty or human kindness. These ‘vanishingly brief moments of hope’ often have to fight to be seen against the dark canvas of war, but no matter how distant they might appear, they are always present somewhere. This is no truer than at the end, in which there is a very definite sense of a new (perhaps even stronger) cloth being woven. The Stray Cats of Homs may be a chronicle of darkness, but it is also a testament to the unfailing power of hope.
The Stray Cats of Homs by Eva Nour, translated from the Swedish by Agnes Broomé, is published in hardback by Doubleday on 13 August 2020. My thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for organising an advance review copy and giving me a place on the publication blog tour.