Sahar Mustafah’s The Beauty of Your Face is excellent. It opens with a school shooter attacking a Muslim school for girls and then whips back in time to follow the childhood of the school’s principal, Palestinian American, Afaf Raman as she grows up with a missing sister and ostracized for her race and religion, and then finds herself a community and purpose through Islam and teaching. [how’s that for a run-on sentence, mom]
Part of what makes the book so good, like Louise Penny, are the descriptions of food. I wanted to eat every time I was reading.
I jest (sort of). No. What made it so compelling for me was the sense of purpose faith brings to Afaf, and the ways the discovery and commitment to this faith changes her relationships with her family, as well as her understanding of herself. As a devote atheist I am genuinely mystified by those who believe in God, even while I recognize, at least in this book, what that belief – at its best – offers. Which is not to say Afaf’s experience of Islam is uncomplicated, or her belief blind and unquestioning. Indeed, in the most obvious way her very life is at stake in her commitment. More, that the novel offers faith as something earned and difficult, but also as security, comfort and community. It was enough to make this heretical Unitarian soul yearn for the days of open churches so I might go and sing with other people the atheist song of a biological life and a radical enjoyment of the present moment and the people in it as all you can count on. Alas. Perhaps next year.
Until then, I commend you to The Beauty of Your Face for its exquisite writing, engrossing plot and nuanced portrait of a family. That sounds like a gross back-cover endorsement. But really – it’s very good.
I’m an atheist. Telling you this will reduce your trust in me, but it should also help you understand my reaction to Wiley Cash’s (excellent) first novel A Land More Kind Than Home. I loved the book. Found it moving, brilliantly paced and narrated, complex in its themes and written with an even, understated beauty. I loved the book, too, because the book directly engages with the consequences of belief and ideas of fate and free choice.
As an atheist I really ought to consider the actions and predispositions that come attached to belief in God more than I do. Atheism is a belief structure (if only a negative belief structure) that warrants a thoughtful engagement with justice, choice and morality just as living within a religious framework does. But I don’t think about these questions within the context of faith (or its absence) very often, and when I do, it’s usually because I’ve been prompted by a book (yet further evidence of the importance of reading). And so I loved A Land More Kind Than Home for both its complex presentation of these questions and for prompting me to reframe the questions within the context of my own life: what do I hold as dogmatic? when/how do I follow/resist authority? Under what circumstances will I take a principled stand?
Enough circling: what’s the book actually about? Set in the American South, the novel follows the Hall family before and after the oldest son, Christopher/Stump is killed during a revival meeting at the local (Baptist?) Church. More complex than following just the family, the interwoven narrative voices of the town sheriff and a local spinster (crone?!) bring forward the ways in which faith and fate impact those within and outside the Church itself. In some ways a mystery, the novel slowly unfolds what properly took place in the Church and who might be held to account for the crimes (a mild complaint, but this “mystery” element wasn’t necessary from my point of view and added little complexity so much as frustration with just wanting to know what had happened). It then does (really remarkable) work in expanding the scope of time and place around this central plot line by weaving in histories of the families and town in ways that add depth to both the characters, but more importantly to the central conflict/crime. As the novel unfolds and these lives and their histories are explored, the death of Christopher/Stump comes to resonate with whole new sets of questions (how are crimes of fathers inherited? is it possible to change our nature?) in a way that lets the reader circle back to the instigating plot moment with new intensity and feeling.
Finally it is a novel about what we do and do not say or speak. Christopher/Stump is a mute – attention metaphor hunters! – and his brother, Jess, attaches responsibility for Stump’s death because of what he – Jess – didn’t say when he could have. There are other moments where silence/speaking surfaces as significant, but for me it crystallized questions around bystanders and bystanders of faith: what do we allow under the auspices of religion that would not be borne under other circumstances? what do we say and not say under the banner of faith or freedom of expression? Certainly questions in 2014 Canada, with different levels of government trying to legislate what kinds of religious accommodations will be “tolerated” within the framework of multicultural Canada and different community groups and individuals muddling through what can and cannot be “said” with reference to belief structures and practices. And certainly questions worth asking and exploring for ourselves – through reading this book! – to know, regardless of – or rather precisely because of – the belief systems we hold to be most true.
So yes, definitely a book worth reading. A book worth talking about with others, but certainly a book worth talking to yourself about.
(Aside: Also! This book has some of the best “acknowledgements” of any I’ve recently read. I’m a sucker for book acknowledgements – I love a taste and tease of the “real life” behind the author. Wiley Cash writes sincere and sweet – but not saccharine! – acknowledgements and I just loved the apparent genuineness of his appreciation).