How does one begin to condense a topic as complex as Arab-Israeli relations into a manageable story without either losing readers or alienating one side? If you’re Diana Fitzgerald Bryden, you do it through a good old-fashioned love story.
It’s 1986, and Lydia Devlin – a nice Jewish girl – meets Farid Salibi – a nice Lebanese boy – while on vacation in Greece. Theirs is a sun-soaked, carefree romance, until Farid’s cousin, Mouna, comes to visit, and the drama of their real lives brings them crashing back to earth.
Neither of the lovers knows what Mouna knows: that the two were connected long before they ever laid eyes on each other. Lydia’s father was a British journalist killed in a rocket attack while covering the conflict in Beirut in the early 1970s. Farid’s (and Mouna’s) uncle was Lydia’s father’s translator, also killed in the attack. Much speculation surrounds the circumstances of their deaths, specifically the involvement of a notorious female Palestinian terrorist named Rafa Ahmed and the nature of the relationship between Ahmed and Lydia’s father. Mouna, a child at the time of her uncle’s death, has grown up placing the blame for his untimely end squarely on the journalist’s shoulders.
Those familiar with Bryden’s poetry will recognize her signature voice, straightforward and bold. This clarity of language helps when the story becomes muddled, with Farid often getting lost in the shuffle as the plotlines of the women, including a secondary arc involving Mouna’s aunt Mariam, take over. At times, the book feels more like Mouna’s story than Lydia and Farid’s, but, thanks to Bryden’s voice, by the halfway point it no longer seems to matter.
No Place Strange is a complex and ambitious debut novel that succeeds on many levels. The female characters are especially strong, and Bryden paints a picture of life in wartorn Beirut that is both tragic and mundane. The love story gets a bit lost along the way, but with an ending that hints at a brighter future, that detail is easily forgiven.