Willow Trees Don't Weep is the story of a young woman's journey to find her father Omar. Najwa has not seen or heard from him since he walked out on her and her mother when she was three, yet she thinks of him daily; his abandonment has undermined her sense of self and she must find him to discover her place in the world.
So when her mother dies, Najwa packs her grandmother off to Mecca, leaves the family home in Jordan and embarks on a quest to find her father that takes her via Afghanistan to England. Despite finding herself in a series of unnerving situations, the unworldly Najwa is determined not to give up until she's found what's happened to Omar and why he left them.
Through Najwa, author Fadia Faqir explores the notion of otherness, of what it is like to be an outsider. Najwa has been raised in a secular household, yet all the other children she grew up with were Muslims ("I stood out as if I had a birth defect with my unruly hair, western clothes and uncovered legs"). She is a single woman living in a household without men in a patriarchal society and has to negotiate gender-specific rules and unwanted sexual attention. When she arrives in Afghanistan and England she becomes a cultural outsider, too; in the latter, she is seen as a Muslim, and by implication, a terrorist.
This is a dramatic premise full of potential and the book's ambition is admirable, but Faqir fails to capitalise. Najwa's responses to situations she finds herself are sometimes glib and insubstantial. Occasionally, she acts in ways that seem out of character (running her finger along the lips of a freedom fighter she has just met, for instance), which undermines her authenticity. In other places, her characterisation is rammed home: Najwa often imagines her dead mother's approval of her secular behaviour, which is fine, except it becomes irritatingly repetitive. There are moments, too, when the dialogue is stilted and unreal.
Faqir's strongest writing is evident in Omar's first-person narrative, which she threads throughout Najwa's. A touching story of loyalty emerges.
The differences between Omar's version of events and his motivation for the life choices he has made, and those imagined by Najwa, drive the story along as, inexorably, their two narratives converge to deliver the book's conclusion.
Given this is where the reader has been heading towards since page one, it should be quite a climax. In reality, it's underwhelming.