Saga details the immigrant experience and the horrors of war
Published in the Witness (03/05/2021)
This book has been around for a while, but this is a new edition and is available in SA so it is worth a review — and a recommendation. It is a lengthy and powerful saga, starting in the early years of the 20th century and ending in 2009.
Apart from the prologue, of which more later, it begins in small town Massachusetts with immigrants — the Irish Catholic Coughlins and the Lebanese Maronite Christian Khourys. As the two families assimilate into America, they meet and George Khoury marries Mary Jo Coughlin.
Their daughter, Rita, ambitious, clever and interested in her Lebanese roots, is the central character of the novel. In the prologue, Rita is introducing her Jewish boyfriend to her family at a traditional Lebanese get together when things go horribly wrong. It is a long way into the book before the reader will discover just how horribly.
The main part of the novel deals with Rita’s experiences as a journalist for a major American newspaper in the Middle East, first in Beirut and later in Baghdad, where she finds herself as a war correspondent after the American invasion. This is powerful writing, evoking the sheer horror of the situation created by the Americans after the removal of Saddam Hussein.
Besides Rita, the narrative follows the experiences of Nabil, her interpreter. He is a sympathetic character, struggling with his sexuality and part of a close-knit family. Eventually, both he and Rita will be forced into exile — one of the main themes of the book.
Author Tim Murphy has created something of a problem for himself with the final part of the novel. After the intensity of the Iraq section, anything else risks being anticlimactic, in the same way that Rita finds her new job as a talking head on Middle Eastern matters anticlimactic after experiencing the adrenaline buzz of newsroom life on the front line.
Murphy reverts to the events of the prologue, and although there are moments when things flag a bit, by now the reader is sufficiently invested in the characters of Rita and Nabil to continue to care. Murphy’s story still grips the attention.
It all makes for a potent novel, dealing as it does with themes of exile and the immigrant experience, trauma and the iniquities of the War on Terror and its shattering results, which of course are being felt to this day.