Out Of It, By Selma Dabbagh, Bloomsbury £12.99


Peter Carty
Monday 26 December 2011 01:00

The Palestinian conflict is a perennially fashionable cause, endlessly dissected by intellectuals. The turmoil rolls on with no resolution in prospect, creating an ever-widening diaspora of refugees. This is a tale of a fictional family: five Mujaheds, all bound up in the tragedy.

Elder brother Sabri was crippled by a car bomb, while his father, a former member of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, has left his wife and retreated to the Gulf. Her own involvement in the struggle is a mystery waiting to be unravelled, but the novel's main focus is on the two remaining children, Rashid and Iman.

Rashid works in a human rights centre. Iman has returned from the UK to try to help the community but finds herself drawn towards an Islamist militia group.

Sonic booms from fighter aircraft and the clatter of helicopters are almost as continuous a refrain in Gaza as the Mediterranean surf. This intrusion makes detachment from the strife impossible. Dabbagh is adept at capturing the alienation that descends, a condition that persists even after its victims have left Gaza's claustrophobic environs. When Rashid and Iman are in London, it's as if there is an unbreachable barrier between them and the city's other inhabitants. The conflict dominates their mental space.

The narrative begins with an Israeli bombing raid and the pace is relentless. Dabbagh is already an accomplished short-story writer and her talent for nailing detail is evident here, too. When a helicopter gunship flies away after assassinating an Islamist militant, the roaring of its engine ceasing abruptly, she writes that Iman "was left with something trivial, almost domestic, a ringing sound in her ears as though somewhere, far off, a fridge door had been left open".

There can be a trade-off between political engagement and literary merit, but its rich narrative treatment takes this novel beyond mere agitprop. The author's assured command of her material means she can switch registers with ease, interleaving escalating tension and welcome humour – not least Rashid's attachment to the beloved marijuana plant he names Gloria. Dabbagh herself scores highly with her debut novel.

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