Review – The Sea Cloak by Nayrouz Qarmout.

Hello Book Lover,

This is a first for me, I am going to review a short story collection and if I am honest about it, I am a litle bit nervous. This year has been the year of challenging myself in terms of my reading, I have read more translated fiction, more non fiction and also more short stories, all of which I have thoroughly enjoyed.

Earlier this year I visited Edinburgh and picked up ‘Banthology: Stories From Unwanted Nations’ published by Comma Press. I really enjoyed this collection. ‘The Phantom Limb’ in particular, I continue to find myself thinking about, long after reading. So when Zoe from Comma Press got in contact and asked if I would like a copy of ‘The Sea Cloak and Other Stories’, I jumped at the chance.

I don’t usually include any information about authors when reviewing books, however I feel compelled to specifically mention Nayrouz Qarmout. ‘The Sea Cloak and Other Stories’ draws on Nayrouz’s own experiences. As a child she grew up in a Syrian refugee camp and at aged 11, she was ‘returned’ to the Gaza Strip as part of the 1994 Oslo Peace Accord, where she remains living today.

In 2018, Nayrouz had an extremely difficult journey to the Edinburgh Book Festival following several visa refusals. She was eventually granted entry to the UK and thankfully made her event with Kamila Shamsie. Nayrouz returned to the festival this year, I have spoken to a couple of people who attended her event and they report that she was fantastic, generating exceptional discussion and debate. She is definitely an author who I would love to hear talk at an event in the future.

‘The Sea Cloak and Other Stories’ is a collection of eleven short stories, all of which I enjoyed. Whilst there were some stories which I felt I understood more than others, I definitely took something from most of them. After reading this book, I certainly felt that I had learnt something about Palestine.

The first couple of stories set the scene, ‘The Sea Cloak’ is about a young girl who wants to break free, but is under the close and watchful eyes of her family. ‘Black Grapes’, questions the complexities and dynamics of relationships between two males within a settlement.

It isn’t until ‘Pen and Notebook’, which is story four, that the landscape of Palestine, known worldwide from the pictures we have seen via the media, comes into play. This is followed by ‘White Lilies’, a story which acts as a stark reminder of the horrific acts of war and the many civilian casualties which it brings.

The tone of the stories shifts with ‘White Lillies’ and the next story, ‘Our Milk’ is equally as unsettling, presenting us with two similar stories, set fifty six years apart.

For me, I felt that the climax of the stories came with ’14 June’. Here we see the violence reaching it’s peak. People have changed; ordinary people are looting and stealing and houses are being ransacked for weapons by men in uniforms. The writing also changes at this point, it becomes more urgent, dark and reflects the tone of the neighbourhood that it’s describing.

In the latter part of the book, the tone shifts once more, this time to focus on family dynamics, and in particular the role which the women play. This central role of protector, facilitator, mother, daughter, is utilised to disucss the strength which each character has in order to ensure the survival of their family.

The stories weave together a complex picture of Palestine, the crushing normality of drone strikes set against family trips to the beach, the collision of viewpoints; young and old, traditionalists and progressive thinkers and what it means to continue to be silenced.

The writing is majestic, Nayrouz Qarmout certainly has a way with words and the stories have a poetic quality about them.

She drifted forward, carried like a mermaid, her thoughts entirely immessed in the waves before her. Time was stealing her steps away, and the sea, without her realising, had already snuck into her memory”

I haven’t read this book just once, I have revisited it several times. It looks like an old, battered copy, pages have been dog-earred and it’s been carried around in my bag for the past couple of weeks. Not because I disrespect books, but because I found that everytime I revisited the stories I have uncovered something different.

I genuinely cannot recommend this collection highly enough, particularly if you are a fan of translated fiction, or are looking for something a little bit different. I am hoping that in the future there is more to come from Nayrouz Qarmout, as I am keen to read more from her.

‘The Sea Cloak and Other Stories’ is out now and published by Comma Press.

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