Minor Detail by Adania Shibli review – between-the-lines horror

An atrocity by Israeli troops begins a sophisticated, oblique novel about empathy and the urge to right wrongs

In Adania Shibli’s third novel, a young Arab woman is raped and murdered by Israeli troops in 1949. The difficulty of portraying the atrocity lies at the heart of a highly sophisticated narrative that pitilessly explores the limits of empathy and the desire to right (or write) historical wrongs by giving voice to the voiceless.

Shibli, a Palestinian writer based in Berlin, starts with an account of an Israeli platoon setting up camp at the desert border with Egypt. Long, uneventful days are broken when a patrol unit stumbles upon a group of nomads and instantly shoots them dead. “The soldiers moved through the spot of green surrounded by endless, barren sand dunes, combing the area for weapons… They found no weapons.”

While the impassivity of the language generates a measure of dark humour, it’s mainly a source of between-the-lines horror. Focusing on action, with no room for thoughts or feelings, or even names, the novel’s third-person narration sticks to the viewpoint of the officer in charge, with barely any speech, and none that isn’t his. The language, as light on judgment as a stage direction, is highly disconcerting. In Elisabeth Jaquette’s translation from the original Arabic, events are recorded minutely but without emotion, not least when the officer seizes the only survivor, a young woman, and takes her back to the camp: “He brought his left hand back and held her by the throat, closed his right hand into a fist, and flung it at her face. After that the girl did not move… Then he lifted her shirt above the chest and lay his body on top of hers.”

Halfway through, the novel loosens up to give us the first-person testimony of a nervy insomniac (also unnamed) in present-day Ramallah. Haunted by a newspaper report on the crimes we’ve just read about, she’s unable to shake off the idea of somehow telling the story from the victim’s point of view – a project that leads her to embark on a risky road trip south, through long-razed villages, towards a site well beyond the zone permitted by her ID card.

While this more conversational segment generates suspense about the novel’s wider purpose, interest also lies in its portrait of everyday life under occupation: what it’s like, say, when soldiers blow up the building next to your office to get at targets hiding inside, and you find yourself bothered most of all by the dust blowing on to your desk.

Ultimately, the attempt to restore agency to someone we’ve seen previously described as a “still-moaning black mass”, heard only screaming in a language unknown to her persecutors, proves a dead end. The road trip meanders from detour to false trail before juddering to a shockingly abrupt halt; with a key role played by a pack of chewing gum, the title takes on the air of a cruel joke, in a climax that only underlines further how swiftly and cheaply life can be taken in the name of self-defence.

From one point of view, you might see the narrator’s fate as a lesson in how trying to tell stories of suffering boils down to privilege she doesn’t have. But the novel casts doubt on the enterprise in any case, which even seems quixotic or, at times, plain whimsical. In the end, the only view we have of the story comes from the perspective of the perpetrator, chillingly unmoved, depending on whether or not you’re prepared to get symbolic about the poker-faced descriptions of his ablutions that occupy much of the novel’s first half.

At one point, the narrator tries to talk herself out of her search, thinking there’s “no point in me feeling responsible for [the victim], like she’s a nobody, and will forever remain a nobody whose voice nobody will hear”. That isn’t a comfortable place to be left, but Minor Detail suggests anything else might be little more than wish fulfilment.

Minor Detail by Adania Shibli (translated by Elisabeth Jaquette) is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (£10.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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