No Land to Light On by Yara Zgheib

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Synopsis

Exit West meets An American Marriage in this breathtaking and evocative novel about a young Syrian couple in the throes of new love, on the cusp of their bright future…when a travel ban rips them apart on the eve of their son’s birth—from the author of The Girls at 17 Swann Street

Hadi and Sama are a young Syrian couple flying high on a whirlwind love, dreaming up a life in the country that brought them together. She had come to Boston years before chasing dreams of a bigger life; he’d landed there as a sponsored refugee from a bloody civil war. Now, they are giddily awaiting the birth of their son, a boy whose native language would be freedom and belonging. 

When Sama is five months pregnant, Hadi’s father dies suddenly in Jordan, the night before his visa appointment at the embassy. Hadi flies back for the funeral, promising his wife that he’ll only be gone for a few days. On the day his flight is due to arrive in Boston, Sama is waiting for him at the airport, eager to bring him back home. But as the minutes and then hours pass, she continues to wait, unaware that Hadi has been stopped at the border and detained for questioning, trapped in a timeless, nightmarish limbo. 

Worlds apart, suspended between hope and disillusion as hours become days become weeks, Sama and Hadi yearn for a way back to each other, and to the life they’d dreamed up together. But does that life exist anymore, or was it only an illusion? 

Achingly intimate yet poignantly universal, No Land to Light On is the story of a family caught up in forces beyond their control, fighting for the freedom and home they found in one another.

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Review

Rating: 4 out of 5.

No Land to Light On by Yara Zgheib

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Certainly a good book for discussion. I’m looking forward to talking more about it because of the though-provoking discussion points that it brings. Thank you to Book Club Favorites at Simon & Schuster for the free copy for review. I’d recommend it to anyone looking to explore some different perspectives on life and makes for an excellent book club read.

Expected publication: January 4th 2022.

The Story
In essence is somewhat of a dramatized story of refugees set against the backdrop of an executive order that banned travel to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries. What is commonly referred to as the “Muslim Travel Ban.” It highlights the insecurities and confusion of those who live lives that encompass multiple national and personal identities. There were unsaid political references that leave room for ambiguity and interpretation from this standpoint which I quite liked. Makes for a more timeless capture of feelings and circumstances that at first glance, feels like a less polarizing, less politically divided read from certain context in my perspective which was refreshing, at the same time also undecidedly less or more powerful with the absence of specific names.

As a whole, it doesn’t dive deep into the characteristics and differences among Islamic societies, practices, or historical context. Also does not mention other national or religious persecution stories and very little about topics surrounding Shia or Sunni law, customs, values, or cultural norms. I wanted to know more about the couple’s connections to them and how it affected them on a deeper level aside from physical separation from each other.

Bird references, I’m not sure if I followed the birds aspect as there was intertwining of proposed human destructiveness from over hunting, climate change, and desire to be free. I tried to see the connection, but I didn’t feel it. Circles around the idea of air and freedom but it didn’t feel as engaging or bring much of a personal connection that I wanted, other than one character studying ornithology and presuppositions about bird behavior and comparisons to humans in chapter references. There wasn’t as much about bird symbolism and Islam, maybe I missed it, we’ll see how my notes compare with further book club discussion.

On the freedom note, it misses some of the history and is a bit dismissive of the previous barriers set forth in the previous administrations. Which again, makes this book a wonderful discussion book in understanding the context behind certain policies, practices, and perceptions. Freedom was depicted as a sort of vague notion representing the possibilities of becoming rather than being which felt less achievable in spite of the potential of any favoring circumstances, especially as the story went on, and particularly how it ended.

So much tension is built up around the theme of the plot, depicting anger at the system and being upset about injustices, that I felt that trying to recoup that emotion with the common saying of everyone is an immigrant somewhere is sort of lost. I suppose it was because there was not much depicted from opposing viewpoints with what some would call a national security issue and logistical issues in the setting of a suspended the resettlement of all Syrian refugees, misses some important context that I had hoped delved into the issues more.

It’s the tone mostly that depicts most situations as a burden, except for a few minuscule joys in life as it relates to food, but stops short there. I would have liked to have lived more of specific good times in life in contrast, particularly the characters as a couple. Perhaps more nuances about their relationship or concrete events that depicted the rosy and glory aspects of their lives and what they hoped to glean from life in general and what they wanted to strive for in the future. Or maybe more moments of being in aw or ambivalence of being in a safe environment, feeling guarded, or perhaps when it comes to rights and what they mean, contrasting them with the “before” and how certain joys may have come and gone.

It almost worked hard to say one thing, then telling another, a juxtaposition was there but was less grounded in character circumstance because it didn’t have the solid foundation to make it distinguished so the translation became somewhat lost. Like for instance, how different their lives were as far as values were concerned, apart from having a child exemplify some important matters in life, but not really a cohesive story to make me feel as connected through the themes as I wanted to hear more about.

Not much about defining or the portrayal of unique cultural practices, symbolism, or religious practices. Food, yes, which was glorious, probably my favorite parts were reading about the food.

It certainly was a book that made me think as far as the storyline is concerned and will have a lot to talk about with book club members.

Writing Style
I enjoyed the multiple POVs though at several points sounded to be the same characters to me.

The prose was part in fragment, pretty poetic at points, which I enjoyed since it was told in present tense. Some parts felt a bit overdone because though fragments made for a quick read, a quick point, and drove me to keep reading along for a single-day read. It was when flowery verbiage was used that it became more style over substance in my mind. But I enjoyed some aspects of it nonetheless.

The story gets lost in the descriptive details. It sort of tries to say too many things at once. I’m not a fan of overly descriptive details, but others who love it will get more out of it than me.

The food descriptions were probably my favorite parts of the book.

Words like “sublime banality” were less meaningful to me. I would have enjoyed it more if the vocabulary wasn’t as thick and flowery and would have matched the story being told from a character point of view in more simple terms. Maybe more colloquial terms, especially in dialogue, which would have also depicted the adaptation and difficulties associated with language acquisition in terms of immigration and refugee experience. The heavy-handed use of what I consider to be unfamiliar terms distracted me from being immersed in the story.

The Tone
There was a certain lens of perpetuating circumstance but speaks very little of the personal experience. Other than a husband and wife who were separated, bonded together with a child, and having to make difficult life decisions that had limiting factors that I felt displayed human emotion but there was an overall connection that was missing. There was this tone of disapproval that was centered around the actual travel ban rather than the roots of the issues which are technically centuries old, surpass many people groups and empires, and it sort of glazed over it all. I like the here and now of individual experience, but I suppose it would be difficult to provide deeper context in a short enough book and bank on whether or not the audience is aware certain factors of the situation and human behavior in general.

I had some questions about plot events, some from a practical viewpoint, some more technicalities:

-The phone call, how did he make such a brash travel and also have a SIM card in place and services so easily?

-Details of their process, sponsorships, and work visas.

-Not that you can’t live in a cold place on earth and be so adapted that you forget or become naive about it, but a lot is dramatized. Feeling extremely cold in a holding cell, sure but Boston, wasn’t he from Boston?

-The cold blade, pressure sure, but a cold blade during what I presumed was a c-section in the operating room, but then she was told to push, and baby was crowning, so was this suddenly a vaginal birth? Perhaps turned into an episiotomy of sorts, but then we’re told her legs were also strapped which didn’t make any sense. At term or circumstance. The passages were quite jumbled, telling multiple/separate birth experiences at once.

-Freckles on a newborn.

-Fetal heart rate, 80-135?

The Characters
Again, never really defines freedom or how that is achieved, or what meaning and value that would bring, how they might flourish, being more focused on togetherness which was not as much drive for the characters toward it in tangible ways, but more in concept which fell flat to me. Because then there is the ending. Though I’m still thinking about that which is a great discussion point in itself.

The relationship lacked substance and I would have liked to have seen more relationship-building scenarios and relationship quirks to bring out some more personality.

The couple really didn’t have much support, friendships, or family values depicted here. Which maybe was part of their story but there really wasn’t any sense of community or community establishment or connections with other people who have walked their story with them or anyone who they deeply connected with during their journey. It’s just like they’re the only two in the world, this sole experience among them. I would have liked some more mentor-type character or notion of wisdom, or some person to interject a little more context into their lives. The pride and fear of being a refugee seems a little misplaced as a result because I didn’t see the anchoring factors for them to yearn and miss the lives they once had or what they looked forward to in the future. Perhaps it was because I didn’t really know if it would be life-altering external circumstance that would solidify who they were or whether it would ultimately be an internal process, change-in-heart matter type of arrival. It came down to knowing about them and their circumstances but not really who they were.

I suppose it’s hard to write a character that is strong, resilient, with intent to fight back and take back what you thought was yours, fighting the system for your values, for principles, but when one of the main characters complained about the soggy cheese sandwiches, disrespected officers, pulled a passive agreement pass on his one phone call, I became a less sympathetic reader to his particular circumstances when his character was proven to be more focused on the here and now, fleeting mindset, rather than the potential outcome of hope, honor, value, endurance, and strength which I would have thought refined his character and actions a bit more given the circumstances. But I suppose it is also hard to depict the minds-eye and discouragement and rage in this one with the way the story was shaping up to be and the end goal.

I really enjoyed the literary value and merit in opening up a discussion for the time and place of this book. Immigration and refugee memoirs are one of my favorite stories to read. Though I would have liked to have read a bit more context, internal conflict, and both internal and external validation to be a little more complete in my mind, I will look forward to discussing all about the many themes and passage of this book with others.

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