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Brooklyn Heights, By Miral al-Tahawy, trans. Sameh Salim

This novel about Arab immigrants in Brooklyn captures their dreams and disappointments

The central story in this interior, elegiac study of immigration and the scars it leaves on the soul is reminiscent of Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn.

A single mother, an Egyptian Bedouin in this case, flees the emotional bondage of her former existence for a new life in Brooklyn with her school-age son, only to find that the past won't leave her alone, and the new beginning she hoped for cannot be grasped.

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Set in the near-present day (Barack Obama has just won the presidency in 2008), the novel traces one woman's quietly anguished journey of displacement. For both Hend, the middle-aged protagonist, and the immigrants she meets in her long walks across Brooklyn, this new world is a place where dreams are both made and broken.

Hend worked as a teacher in Egypt and came to America with the secret hope of becoming a writer but she ends up working at Dunkin' Donuts. Her interior life, by contrast, is rich and full of yearning, fuelled variously by escapist fantasies borrowed from 1950s Egyptian cinema or by critical self-reflection and self-loathing.

In this book – shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction - Miral al-Tahawy draws out the usually invisible substrata of New York immigrant life. She writes heart-rendingly about the men and women who come to America either in flight from their former lives or with the hope to re-invent themselves. These portraits of newly-arrived Arabs, Africans, Russians give a psychological topography to Brooklyn, far removed from the privileged and urbane cast of characters more synonymous with this part of New York City in contemporary American literature.

Hend is, to some extent, an ear-piece for the immigrants who frequent the coffee shops and diners she visits. Each one is keen to tell her of their former lives. Yet these pasts invariably include terrors – testimonies of emotional abuse and humanitarian asylum, wives beaten and abandoned by husbands, daughters brutalised by parents, brothers and sons turned into Islamic fanatics.

Hend, bewildered by her new world, spirals into a depression which causes memory loss. There is an even more terrifying kind of forgetting in the character of Lilith, a once glamorous elderly woman who is fighting a battle with senility. Forgetting, in a sense, becomes a metaphor for the immigrant condition and its contradictory driving impulses. Remaking one's identity means that a former self must, to some extent, be left behind or suspended in a limbo of forced forgetfulness.

Escaping past oppression is not enough for Hend, who must navigate the new struggle for independence. Some of the characters she meets have reached a point of despair as they reflect on the gulf between their new lives and their dreams, but others, poignantly, hold on tenaciously to the prospect of transformation – such as Ziyad, a Palestinian who works in a shop but hopes to become a filmmaker. Even Hend "still dares to hope that some dreams at least can come true at any age."