Book reviews: Going Home, Raja Shehadeh; Say Say Say, Lila Savage

Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh’s memoir is saturated with regret, both personal and political, but he brings places and people to life with his visceral writing.

Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh’s memoir Going Home: A Walk Through Fifty Years of Occupation was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, a film in which an old man reflects on his life, and it shares its melancholy and dreamlike quality. On the anniversary of the Six-Day War, Shehadeh, now 68, sets off on a walking tour of Ramallah. His journey is a tale of two cities: the invisible one he summons up from childhood, with its bakeries and haberdasheries, and the one that exists today: filled with high-rises, cafes and burger joints.

As he walks, he reflects on his own experiences and that of the West Bank, as it has faced the upheaval of the occupation, the Olso Accords and two intifadas. Going Home is a book saturated with regret, both personal and political. Shehadeh harbours guilt about his youthful arrogance, his fraught relationship with his father, and his failure to effect the change he dreamed of in his roles as lawyer and human rights activist.

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More than 20 years after the signing of the Oslo Accords, the lives of its citizens are still trammelled by the Israeli state. “Could it be that I have lived a mock existence of words, led a false paper life?” he asks.

Shehadeh has the ability to conjure up places so viscerally you want to reach out and pluck the fruit from the trees. On the street leading to the hisba (market) “the pavement [is] crammed with sacks of brown dried figs, raisins, black carob beans and solid white yoghurt balls”. 

He is captivated by flowers: purple jacaranda, light blue rabbit-ear irises, yellow birds of paradise flowers, pink bougainvillea.

And the setting is not the only thing that shines; along the way, Shehadeh encounters an assortment of mavericks, some alive, some dead, who transform his canvas from a vibrant van Gogh garden into a bustling Bruegel townscape. Here, scrabbling around in a recycling bin is Abu Hassan, the hoarder. There, sticking a monocle in his eye, is the German watchmaker.

Shehadeh’s descriptive powers are balanced by the acuity of his political insights. From a secular perspective, he laments the growing number of head scarves and the azan (call to prayer) as evidence that religion rather than nationalism now provides the public with its sense of identity. Yet, he is also discomfited by the rise in consumerism, in particular the posters for banks that have replaced those of martyrs on the wall.

Shehadeh’s prognosis for Palestine is bleak; lamenting the changes wrought to the once-serene Grand Hotel, he suggests the loud music that now plays there serves as a distraction. “Perhaps noise is necessary to drown the fear,” he writes.

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Lila Savage’s novel Say Say Say is also a story of lives circumscribed, this time by disability. Having suffered brain damage in a car accident, Jill has lost much of her cognitive capacity. She is looked after by her husband Bryn, but as her condition declines he hires a younger woman, Ella, to help. Ella soon finds herself emotionally involved both with Jill and Bryn, whose devotion she admires.

Savage spent a decade as a carer and she has much to say about the relationship between care-giver and care-receiver. But Ella’s
self-absorption – her tendency to centre herself and project her own feelings on to Bryn, instead of taking practical steps to help him – quickly becomes insufferable.

Illustration: Astrid Weguelin