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No Turning Back, Rania Abouzeid: Black Sugar, Miguel Bonnefoy

Rania Abouzeid’s analysis of how a peaceful uprising became a cauldron of chaos is essential reading, says Dani Garavelli

Minutes after finishing journalist Rania Abouzeid‘s book No Turning Back: Life, Loss and Hope in Wartime Syria, I switched on the news and saw footage from a hospital in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta.

The images were all-too familiar: doctors inured to the constant shelling; parents clutching bloodied children and an all-pervasive sense of futility in a conflict that, six years on, shows no sign of abating.

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Despite its subtitle, No Turning Back is a bleak read, offering little prospect of a happy ending. But it is also a masterpiece: a forensic, yet accessible anatomy of how a peaceful uprising was hijacked by external forces who cared less about ridding Syria of dictator Bashar al-Assad than furthering their own agendas.

The book’s power lies in Abouzeid’s telling of the story through the contrasting perspectives of individuals who have given her almost unfettered access to their lives

For those confused by the country’s descent into chaos and the myriad factions now battling it out for supremacy, it is indispensable. Abouzeid, who has written for The New Yorker and Time Magazine, charts the civil war from the demonstrations of the Arab Spring (2011), through the rise and fall of the Syrian Free Army (SFA) and the influx of foreign jihadis, to the eventual formation of ISIS.

The book’s power, however, lies in Abouzeid’s telling of this complex story through the contrasting perspectives of a handful of individuals who have given her almost unfettered access to their lives. They include Suleiman, a wealthy young man from the once Assad-loyal city of Rastan; Ruha, a nine-year-old, living under continual bombardment in Saraqeb, Abu Azzam, a student-turned fighter in the Farouq Battalions (part of the SFA), and Mohammad, a prison-radicalised extremist who joins the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.

Travelling alongside them as events unfold, the reader not only shares in their mounting despair, but gains an insight into how the manipulation of a home-grown liberation movement into a quest for an Islamic caliphate was facilitated by the use of Syria as a proxy for other countries’ battles, by foreign states “playing favourites with groups on the ground” and by the West’s failure to act even as Assad was launching chemical attacks on his own people. ISIS planted its black flag in the midst of that discord, and, much as its ideology was despised, it brought a brutal form of order to a state of anarchy.

Abouzeid, who writes compellingly throughout, is also interested in the impact of war on human beings: the way Ruha plays with shrapnel and carries a tally of “who has died, who has lived and who has left” in her head; the way some are embittered by their hardships, while others are possessed of an unbreakable spirit. If there is hope in No Turning Back, that’s where it is found: in the adaptability of those like Suleiman and Ruha’s father Maysaara, who go on building makeshift structures out of the detritus of their shattered existences.

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Black Sugar, by Miguel Bonnefoy, is a fable about buried treasure set in Venezuela, a country now on the brink of economic collapse. Heavily influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and translated from French, it explores the corrupting effect of wealth, and the desire for it, through the surreal adventures of the Otero family. Its moral – that life’s real treasure cannot be weighed on scales – may be trite, but its lyricism and vivid descriptions of a tropical landscape make it worth stopping by for.

No Turning Back: Life, Loss and Hope in Wartime Syria, Rania Abouzeid (Oneworld Publications, £14.99)

Black Sugar, Miguel Bonnefoy (Gallic Books, £8.99)

@DaniGaravelli1

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