- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 28, 2006

The unnamed protagonist of Sayed Kashua’s Let It Be Morning (Grove Press/Black Cat, $13, 288 pages) is an Arab working for an Israeli newspaper; his identity gives him valuable access and he regularly reports on the West Bank.

But two days of covering an especially violent confrontation between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli soldiers there leave him questioning his situation. His editors change beyond recognition the story he turns in and, for the first time, he is accused of “having an axe to grind.”

The outsider identity that has served him well in the past is becoming a burden; he finds that “the privilege of criticizing government policy [is] an exclusively Jewish prerogative.” In an effort to regain his sense of who he really is, he moves with his wife and baby daughter back to the Israeli Arab village where he grew up, to a fine, new house a few steps from his parents’ home.

Sayed Kashua is himself an Israeli Arab journalist (the book is translated from Hebrew by Miriam Shlesinger), and his evocation of the conflicting loyalties inherent in that situation is fascinating. He shows his protagonist hiding his annoyance at the office secretary’s joking question to him in the morning, “Did you throw any stones at the entrance?” yet understanding that he is better off in many ways than his fellow Arabs outside of Israel.

When he returns to his village, he realizes that he is, to some extent, an outsider there, too. He isn’t religious but finds himself surrounded by a newly observant attitude. Women who used to dress in Western style are now covering their heads. Weddings with music and dancing have been replaced by long ceremonies led by a sheikh and a religion teacher. The town is as full as ever of gossip and feuds but with everything made more intense by political volatility and conflicting feelings towards the Israeli state.

This fascinating context, though, is the main strength of “Let It Be Morning.” The nameless narrator and the woman he refers to only as “my wife” never quite enlist our sympathy and the present tense narration grows wearisome. Reading Sayed Kashua is a reminder of how little fiction from the Middle East we read and how welcome it would be to see more of it.

• • •

As the American-born daughter of Korean parents, Katherine Min also writes from and about a double perspective. The narrator of Secondhand World (Alfred A. Knopf, $23, 277 pages), Isadora Myong Hee Sohn, is a young woman attempting to understand her family history and the way her deceased parents’ uneasy and incomplete transition from Korean to American affected her own experience.

More striking, though, than its double perspective is this book’s brutality. Isa’s parents are caught in the normal strains of a clash of cultures, but they must also cope with a ghastly accident that kills their younger child. While they retreat into sadness and depression, the narrator reacts to the accident and to her parents’ despair with fury.

Even for a teenager, she is breathtakingly mean. “I felt winded, exhilarated, and ashamed,” she writes of one particularly nasty interaction with her mother. “I hadn’t known myself capable of such cruelty.” And the book builds to an episode of deliberate violence even more harrowing than the accident that kills Isa’s brother. Cruelty and violence coexist with some nicely drawn scenes of tenderness and an astutely observed conclusion in this disturbing debut work.

• • •

What is most striking about another first novel, The City is a Rising Tide (Simon & Schuster, $21, 197 pages) by Rebecca Lee, is not the narrator’s dual identity — although as the daughter of wealthy missionaries who grew up in China and now lives in New York, she has one — but the novel’s interestingly complex structure. What seems to be a straightforward narration is in fact a richly detailed interplay between past and present, consciousness and memory, personal and national, more evocative than linear and often quite funny.

Justine Laxness works with Peter Michaels, a man 20 years her senior, running a nonprofit he founded called the Aquinas Foundation; the mission is to “promote the intersection of Eastern and Western medicine,” which they plan to do by building a “healing center” in China, on the banks of the Yangtze River. It will be “not quite hospital, not quite spa, not quite temple, but a mixture of all three, some organization of material devoted to fulfilling a person’s mental and physical potential.”

Celebrities, it turns out, are happy to donate “since they themselves [require] close, intricate types of attention — acupuncture, biofeedback, qui gong — but [are] not actually sick in any way.” Justine nurtures an unrequited love for Peter, who she knew as a child in China; he is still mourning the woman he loved and lost to the ravages of the Cultural Revolution, Su Chen, the Chinese amah who cared for Justine (and, later, for the children of Chairman Mao).

The beast that lurks beneath the glimmering surface of “The City is a Rising Tide” is moral passivity. Peter scarcely protests when he is accused of “helping people who don’t need it.” Justine knows she is indulging a fantasy when she imagines that, perhaps, Peter is starting to love her.

And she barely pauses before assigning a large grant, one Peter would not approve, to a film being made by a friend. Both Justine and Peter fail to fully acknowledge that, once the Three Gorges Dam is complete, the site for the “healing center” will be under hundreds of feet of water. Their semi-conscious rush toward catastrophe is thought provoking and very entertaining.

• • •

In Tomorrow They Will Kiss (Back Bay Books, $13.99, 304 pages) by Eduardo Santiago, three narrators take turns telling the story. They are women who ride together every day in a crowded van carrying them to jobs assembling dolls in a toy factory in Union City, N.J.

All the passengers are refugees from Castro’s Cuba (the date is 1967) and during their rides, bickering, complaints and gossip are constant. Only the love they share for telenovelas, the Spanish language soap operas they watch each evening, allows them to escape the dreariness and difficulty of their present situations and find refuge in talk of love.

Graciela, Caridad and Imperio are from Palmagria, a “very small town that followed very specific rules,” rules that were tougher on women than on men. Seen through the eyes of her friends, Graciela never fit in there and always behaved in a way that made her seem selfish, almost crazy.

They recount her self-serving marriage to the widowed local schoolmaster, her work as a manicurist, the shocking affair with a young revolutionary named Pepe that got her and her two young sons banished to her parents’ house. They note that in New Jersey she is studying fashion design and English and that she seems to have caught the eye of Mr. O’Reilly, the factory foreman and for all this they criticize her, too.

But when Graciela narrates the same events she comes across as an appealing young woman starving for love, willing to see her mistakes and start again, gifted with the energy and imagination (which her friends lack) to make a go of it in a new country. By the book’s end, her life has become the telenovela bringing romance and hope into the lives of all three friends.

As interesting as the women’s stories are the glimpses their memories provide of revolutionary Cuba. The women recall Palamagria’s transformation from a place where people had “blindly, blindly, done everything imaginable to put Castro in power,” to a dismal town overrun with soldiers and desperate refugees from the countryside, where people began to fear that everything they had would be taken from them — including their children which, rumor had it, were all going to be sent, like Castro’s 12-year-old son Fidelito, to be educated in the Soviet Union. Such details give added resonance to this charming book.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.

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