BEIRUT: Nada Awar Jarrar's second novel, "Dreams of Water," treads over familiar territory. Set in and around several years of civil war, it positions Lebanon as home and London as exile. It tells the story of a family blindsided by grief after a son and brother is kidnapped - never to return, his body never found, his captors never known. It agonizes in the well-worn groove of whether to stay or go, return or remain, permanently or only temporarily.
"Dreams of Water" unfolds in six parts, each of which delves into the headspace of an individual character. First there is Aneesa, the novel's central protagonist who is plagued by the sluicing nocturnal visions that give the book its name. She is four when the plot begins, either prodigiously imaginative or possessed by the spirits of past lives. She grows into adolescence with an intense attachment to her brother Bassam, though they aren't close enough for him to divulge the extent of his "political activities" as the war heats up.
First her father dies. Then Bassam disappears. Aneesa and her mother Waddad are bereft. Unable to find any trace of her brother, Aneesa takes to forging letters from him to salve her mother's emotional wounds. Eventually, she escapes to London, where she works as a translator, lives like a spinster, and finally, in her thirties, takes a lover at the prompting of a more vivacious friend named Isabel. At this point, Jarrar rips open a seam that will run throughout the book - the ways in which those who have been sprung from Lebanon's wars are unable to commit to anyone, especially if they are already missing someone.
Meanwhile, back in Lebanon, Waddad, despite having received those occasional, fraudulent letters from her lost son, has begun volunteering at a mountain orphanage and eventually hones in on a young boy who was born around the time her son disappeared. Being from a Druze background, it's not long before she makes the leap - young Ramzi is Bassam reincarnated. Soon enough, the boy is coming to Beirut to stay with her and be her son on weekends.
Skip over to London and Aneesa has spurned her lover and struck up a rather more platonic friendship with an elderly man named Salah, recently widowed, living with his son, also in exile from Lebanon. When Salah shows increasingly strong signs of attachment to Aneesa, the son, Samir, steps in to question whether or not all this inter-generational affection is wise. To summarize the rest would spoil the novel's suspense.
Jarrar writes in prose that is fresh and light. The plot skims along gently and quickly. "Dreams of Water" can be read in a single, extended sitting. Jarrar has cut her narrative into small pieces and rearranged them, tweaking the time sequence. This, in addition to the fact that the omniscient narrator swings from one character to another, gives the novel a faintly cinematic feel but falls short of any tangible post-post-modern innovation.
If one can fault "Dreams of Water" with anything, it is the nature of Jarrar's characters. They are nice and they are honest and they are good. They suffer. They are pained. But by lining up their different perspectives on the same story, the author orchestrates no ruptures, no roughness, no edge. The only palpable deceit stems from Aneesa's forged letters. They may suffer grand events, but their passions are petite.
Because "Dreams of Water" roots into the back story of each character - such as Salah's childhood, the early years of his marriage, his loss and then his son's experience of tending to him after he suffers a stroke - its timeframe spans well before and well after the Civil War. As such, Jarrar's book narrowly escapes being yet another Lebanese Civil War novel - arguably a good thing, as one wonders how much truck that subgenre of Lebanese fiction still has at this point.
Jarrar's characters too often ponder themselves - they are often "surprised" by a feeling, to be angry, to feel pleasure. This is either the literary equivalent of surrogate navel-gazing or the cast has yet to achieve full life on the page, as if the characters still exist in formation, as figments of the author's imagination. And there are a few minor linguistic clunkers.
Jarrar renders Lebanese cuisine in vivid language, yet too many passages end with the labne salty, "just the way he liked it," the coffee bitter, "just the way she liked it." These satisfied but notably non-disclosing and non-discursive taste buds grate after a while. And furthermore, must a kitchen counter always be referred to as a "kitchen work surface," as if the room doubled as a factory floor?
"Dreams of Water," like Jarrar's debut "Somewhere, Home," sparkles in its simplicity. It pares down the experiences of absence, loss, grief and solitude to a kind of core clarity. For some, the novel will read like a tonic. For others, it will leave an itch for more grit.
Nada Awar Jarrar's "Dreams of Water" has just been published in the UK by Harper Collins. The author is signing copies of the book tonight at 6 p.m. at the Virgin Megastore in Downtown Beirut. For more information, please call +961 1 999 666.