Review: A House at the Edge of Tears by Vénus Khoury-Ghata

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


In a city of Beirut, five shabby dwellings circle a courtyard with a pomegranate tree. One night, the residents hear screams when a boy is harassed and assaulted by his father for masturbating in his sleep. When his wife begs him not to kill the boy, he says
The thought of killing him never crossed my mind. I want to bury him alive.
The boy is sent off to a monastery and later to an insane asylum. Each time, he returns back worse than before. His father also disapproves of the poems he writes, but his sister benefits from them, by narrating this story. Over time, the boy gets lost in his own world as he becomes increasingly mentally challenged.

A House at the Edge of Tears is a daughter's means to combat her shame, a sister's means to tackle her lack of helplessness at her brother's situation. Vénus questions her father's action of throwing his wife and three daughters outside while keeping his son tied up at home. She wishes her mother had spoken up instead of crying.

I kept putting off writing this review. I had mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand - the writing. I was absolutely captivated. I couldn't put down this book, even though it is primarily written in a poetical style, which is not really my strong point. But Vénus has a style of writing that can never bore you. A House at the Edge of Tears was initially written in French, and later translated by Marilyn Hacker. I can only imagine how beautiful and lyrical the original work must be.

Vénus' narration of her brother's suffering was poignant and very vivid. I kept seeing real images in my mind's eye. Her neighbors show mostly pity. They gossip that her brother must have tried to rape his sisters. Much as the small-mindedness of her neighbors can be irritating, Vénus sketches a clear portrait of them. There's the Vinikofs, who go every Sunday to look for treasure based on the word of a sorcerer; a Contessa who loves her dog dearly and teaches tango; Aunt Rose, the landlady, who when afflicted of an ailment gives back the rent money; Renée, whose husband distrusts doctors costing her dearly; Madame Latifa, who will not unveil herself in others' presence.

In spite of the eloquence oozing out of the book, I couldn't connect too well with it. Vénus' passages are beautiful and pull at strings in your heart and mind. Her chapters chronicling her brother's condition were especially hard. I can only imagine what it is like to watch your sibling slowly get disconnected from reality, string by string. Her mother's reaction was the hardest to digest. She was so helpless she could only cry, and yet she was the only one who persisted through helping her son whenever possible, and trying to distract her husband from anything that will cause him to abuse the boy further. I wished I learnt more of what Vénus or her sisters did to defend their brother. That no one in that dwelling could stand up for a boy both shocked and despaired me.

Vénus' narration switches between second person, when she is usually addressing her brother, and third person, when we learn of what happens in the houses around the courtyard. At times though, the jumping around bothered me. Like I said, I am not a poetry person. I love the poetical writing, but the discontinuities can sometimes bother me. It took me some time to get my bearings any time the narration focus changed. Those who love reading poetry or books written in poetical prose will relish reading this one - the narration is one that holds the reader's interest.

   

Check out this book published by Graywolf Press @ GoodreadsBetterWorldBooksAmazonB&N.

I borrowed this book from the library.


3 comments:

Ash said...

This sounds like a really challenging book but the writing sounds fantastic! I haven't read very many books in translation so I might have read a few pages and see how I feel about it.

strange_candy_reviews said...

You have an award at my blog.
www.strangecandyreviews.blogspot.com

bermudaonion said...

Oh my gosh, what a sad story. I guess the fact that no one stood up to the father was a cultural thing. I'm not sure if this is for me.