Sunday, June 19, 2011

Book Review: The Sweetness of Tears

The Sweetness of Tears by Nafisa Haji

  In her second novel, Haji gave me all of the emotional involvement that I was looking for in The Submission but didn't find, so it was very interesting reading these two books back to back.  This paperback original is a three generational family saga that spans the globe from California to Africa to the Middle East and back again, and like The Submission, religion and politics are the very heart of the novel.  It's a story of both cultural prejudice and curiosity, family betrayals and forgiveness, and learning how to re-see your world when the truths you've always taken for granted are not just disrupted but completely uprooted. 

Haji, who wrote the wonderful book The Writing on my Forehead, is a good writer who can get to the very heart of the matter--I never have trouble emotionally identifying with her characters and I trust her to take me on a ride that starts off difficultly but ends with redemption and satisfaction.  I also love how much I learn when reading her books, whether it's food customs in Pakistan or religious traditions in Bangladesh. 

In this book in particular I was also much drawn to some of her truisms about language and religion.  Here are a few that I dogeared:

In an observation during the Shia Muslim holy time of Muharram and Safar, commemoratingKarbala: "Later, louder voices intruded on the quiet scenes of anticipation that the older women had set, as younger women, for whom the call of piety was of less immediate concern than the social need to be seen as pious…"  Lawd, how many churchgoers did I grow up with who would have fit that definition to a T?!

A missionary exasperated with questions about how many souls she has saved when she's more concerned with the lives she has saved: "I guess [language] says something about the importance of family in some cultures.  Something we could all stand to emulate  Instead of just talking all the time, about family values--only thing I ever saw being valued when I've heard those two words getting thrown around is the act of not minding your own business."

And the same character, later: "Real faith is an action--a verb.  It's truth unfolding…you can't drown it out, covering your ears while you shout out declarations of belief.  That's not faith.  that's cowardice--a fear of truth, which is only scary when you're fighting to keep yourself from knowing it."

On learning a second language: "Of course, the real test of proficiency comes when you get to the stage of poetry...Poetry touches on truth beyond words. Almost impossible, really, to ever fully understand poetry in a foreign language.  Almost. It's too difficult to translate, you see, because there's so much more to it than the definition of words. In poetry, words are meant to bypass our normal ways of understanding--to skip the mind altogether."

This book was published by William Morrow earlier this month and I received a free ARC of it from my wonderful Harper sales rep, Anne DeCourcey.  It also happens to qualify as my second book this year for the South Asian challenge.


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