This is an absorbing collection of eleven short stories with a common theme of life as a Palestinian in Gaza. I’ll be honest and admit that those words seem to belong behind the windows of politics and I have a habit of drawing the blinds down on them. So a collection like this is essential for one such as myself who can sometimes fail to acknowledge the reality of the humanity behind the politics. You see and hear words on the news, an all too brief report, a snatch of a survivor’s account, people weeping at some atrocity, but how deeply does it resonate in these times of media overload? I am humbled by this book for one thing it has done is exploit my ignorance.

But what else has it done? The first thing is I ‘forgot’ is that the stories are all in translation such is the superb job that translators Perween Richards and Charles Bredin (who translated the first story) have done. Yet you never forget the stories are of Palestinian lives. I enjoyed the balance of the stories that as a collection acknowledge the part that history plays in any conflict anywhere. Here there are stories of the past and of the now. There are stories of people trying to go about their daily lives against a backdrop of conflict and uncertainty that our comfortable selves cannot comprehend. The innocence and vulnerability of children living in conflict zones will pull at your heart. The bonding of families, sibling loyalties, terrorist indifferences insist you run the gamut of emotion.

As a reviewer a short story collection can be a tricky one to review for you almost want to detail each story you’ve read, extolling the virtues of all. It is slightly easier when there is such a strong thematic connection as there is here. I think that what struck me reading all the stories is the honesty that pervades them all, telling it how it is. There’s a sense of the writer taking us by the hand and inviting us to not just explore her world but to experience and understand the complexity of belief and emotion invested in a cultural ethnicity far removed from our own daily lives. But more broadly there is a feminist thread that runs through many of the stories that are not functional because of Gaza or being Palestinian but because of being a woman and subject to dogma and outdated traditions. Questions are raised for us to ponder.

Highlights? That’s hard. There are no low lights! I particularly enjoyed Pen and Notebook exploring sibling responsibility and loyalty that will make you laugh and cry. The Long Braid – feminism and religion – was another favourite of mine. There was a point at which I wondered whether all of these stories were true? The writing is so convincing and strong, descriptions and characterisations so powerful you’re almost convinced the writer has lived all of them in her time. For such a slender volume this collection packs quite a punch, barely a hundred pages yet there’s a depth emanating from it that a book three times the length might not possess.

I am indebted to nbmagazine.co.uk for the opportunity to, maybe experience, rather than to ‘merely’ read these stories.

Gill Chedgey 4/5

The Sea Cloak and Other Stories by Nayrouz Qarmout
Comma Press 9781905583782 pbk Aug 2019