WRITING STYLE: 4.5/5
ENTERTAINMENT QUOTIENT: 4.5/5
“That was the real reason abuse was so common, Isra thought for the first time. Not only because there was no government protection, but because women were raised to believe they were worthless, shameful creatures who deserved to get beaten, who were made to depend on the men who beat them.”
– Etaf Rum, A Woman is No Man
After a long time, I picked up a book set in the Middle East. It was two years ago that I picked up a book with a similar setting. Jasmine Days by Benyamin was not just an exceptionally well-written piece of fiction writing, but it had also won the inaugural JCB Prize for Literature in the year 2018.
My recent read, Etaf Rum’s A Woman is No Man is set in both America and Palestine and narrates the tales of three generations of Palestinian women who come to America in search of a better life and freer world. Read on to know more about my thoughts on the book and how was my experience of reading it.
What to expect?
Expect a book that narrates the pain and struggles of immigrants. Expect a women-centric book with mostly female characters. Expect a literary fiction that acquaints you with the everyday struggles of a woman born and bred in an oppressive culture. Expect a book that will leave you sad and gloomy, and one that has the potential to make you cry.
Who can read?
The book is written in a comparatively easy language but the context and the content are such that it would be recommended to regular and voracious readers.
At the outset, it is the intriguing title that catches your eye. You immediately want to know what it is and what is the story like.
“A Woman is No Man” narrates a sad tale of emotional and physical abuse. If that is something that acts as a trigger for you, please do not pick up this read.
Let’s talk about the storyline
The book gives us a fictional account of the lives of Arab women from conservative families living in America.
Deya, an eighteen-year-old Palestinian girl living in Brooklyn has started to see suitors for marriage. Though, she’d rather be in college, study hard and be independent, her grandparents want otherwise. When it comes to her life, she has no say. So, it is with great reluctance that she starts to see suitors.
A generation ago, it was her mother, Isra, who was also on the cusp of adulthood when she was married off to Adam from America. Eighteen-year-old Isra had no choice when she was made to leave Palestine.
Until now Deya had been made to believe that her parents had died in a car accident but a mysterious note from a stranger who seems to know Deya well, shatters Deya’s world, and makes her question everything that she has known about her parent’s death.
In the process of unraveling the truth, Deya discovers deep dark secrets that have stayed in the family for long enough. She also discovers some brutally honest and unsettling truth about her community.
The book touches upon multiple themes – women’s oppression in a regressive society, emotional and physical torture of women, the façade of family honour, familial bonds, patriarchy and its adverse effect on women, the struggles of immigrants, and the challenges of immigrant life.
What did I like?
The brutally vivid accounts of the life of three generations of Syrian women and the honest portrayals of their characters is what makes this book so special. A woman is a woman everywhere. Her fate remains the same whether she is in Palestine or in America is of no consequence. The book shows us not just how Arab men treat their women but also how Arab women propagate the same standards to the next generation.
Mysterious undertones are present throughout the book. Even though they are quite underwhelming in the end, the narrator teases the reader with the promise of something that is beyond our reach and understanding. These materialize in the form of deep and dark family secrets that have been long buried to protect the family honour.
A reflection of society?
“A Woman is No Man” is the story of a society that treats its women like second-grade citizens. Where women don’t have dreams and wishes, they only have duties and responsibilities. Where the sole onus of protecting the family honour falls on their overburdened shoulders.
Where men can do as they please, but a woman must only do as she is told by the men of her family.
It portrays a world where a young teenager is married off to a strange man from a strange land, and where a little girl of seven caught talking to a boy is quickly labelled a sharmouta (a whore).
What did I not like?
At some points, the book tends to slow down. It has dull moments that drag the pace down and the story becomes rather stagnant during these times.
How good are the characters?
The women characters do manage to stand out. Out of the three characters, it is Fareeda who has a layered and complex personality. While she does relate to issues around her, she personally does nothing to right those wrongs. She instead reaffirms the injustices and unfair customs in her house. This makes the reader conflicted. She evokes mixed feelings – rage and pity. Adam is another character whom the reader comes to loathe. Deya and Isra though having significant parts in the novel, turn out to be quite monotonous. While Deya is too scared, Isra is too helpless.
Characters who are readers
As a reader, it’s always a pleasure to come across characters who love to read. As a cherry on top, this book has three of them. They read to escape from the sad reality of their life, they read to dream and to keep their hopes alive.
Not an easy read
Let me warn you that this book is not an easy read. It is gloomy and dark and sometimes you will have to take a break to be able to process all that you just read. The topic itself is such that it will make any reader uncomfortable. You feel anger but you will also feel grief.
Is the climax good?
The climax leaves us on an unexpected note. There is a certain ambiguity about the end that renders it a dream-like vibe. Though, I am not a fan of such open-ended conclusions, in this book, it seems to fit well.
In the end
In the end, “A Woman is No Man” is a tragic tale of lost dreams, hopeless lives, and an oppressive society that treats it women as second-class citizens. It is a brutally honest portrayal of the lives of Palestinian-American women who eventually learn that a woman will always be a woman, no matter where she lives.
My final verdict
Go for it!
Pick the book if
- You like literary fiction by women authors.
- You enjoy books that talk about women-centric themes and issues.
- You are looking for a book set in the Middle East.
- The idea of a book set around the lives of Palestinian-Americans appeals to you.
Skip the book if
- Any of the trigger warnings apply to you.
- You aren’t looking for a sad and tragic read.
Can’t wait to read it? Buy your copy of “A Woman is No Man” using the link below.