Book review: In the Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib

A debut novel that offers gripping drama about an Egyptian family's difficulties after emigrating to the United States.

In the Language of Miracles, Rajia Hassib's impressive debut novel, bears out Tolstoy's famous assertion that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

The family in question is the Al Menshawys and the source of their unhappiness comes from within (a terrible crime committed by one of their own) and without (consequential cold-shoulder treatment from their community). The novel tracks their misfortune and their conflict, and in doing so explores a tough moral conundrum: how much guilt and shame should a family bear for the misdeeds of one errant member?

Like the author, characters Samir and Nagla have emigrated from Egypt to America. Their three children, Hosaam, Khaled and Fatima, are born in their adopted homeland. This is divulged in the opening chapters, but as we are taking it all in and getting our bearings, our attention snags on an almost throwaway phrase: the events in the novel unfold “just short of a year after the deaths”.

Hassib stokes our curiosity with a key scene in which the Al Menshawys’ New Jersey neighbour, Cynthia Bradstreet, pays the family a surprise visit after months of avoiding them, and explains first that they are holding a memorial service “for the anniversary” to get closure, and second, that she doesn’t blame them for what happened.

Exactly what happened is revealed tantalisingly, in piecemeal portions. It transpires that eldest son Hosaam killed his ex-girlfriend, Natalie Bradstreet, and then himself. In the fallout, the Al Menshawys become toxic – the parents ostracised for rearing a monster, the children bullied. Even the dead Hosaam was harassed, his grave defaced with graffiti.

Samir sees the upcoming memorial service as an opportunity to reconnect with the community and plans on attending and giving a speech. His horrified family anticipate not reconciliation but an opening of old wounds and try in vain to talk him out of it.

The novel’s highly charged narrative takes the form of a countdown, with each chapter comprising a day in the life of the beleaguered Al Menshawys as they inch closer to Sunday, memorial day, a potential day of reckoning. Hassib follows every member, sharpening her focus on individual fears and predicaments. Despite calling America home for twenty years, we see Samir floundering with American ways, unable to understand “this whole idea of memorials, this whole insistence on holding tight to a knife that was already buried deep in one’s heart and twisting”. Nagla has drifted away from prayer sessions at the mosque, feels claustrophobic in the company of best friend Ameena and chides herself for not having noticed the violent change in her son.

If there is a lead character then it is Khaled, the good boy to Hosaam’s bad apple. He attempts to get on with his life by losing himself in Lepidoptera and writing a blog. However, crunch time comes when he falls for Brittany: should he tell her the truth about his dead brother or will she take fright and run a mile?

Sunday rolls around and with it Hassib’s climax. What could have been a messy, histrionic, soap-opera showdown is instead meticulously stage-managed. Yet while Hassib’s novel is a journey to this critical point, it is more enjoyable travelling than arriving. There is her compelling backstory which deals with Samir and Nagla’s trials of culture shock and acclimatisation, and Hosaam’s gradual, sinister transition from outgoing adolescent with musical aspirations to vengeful recluse. There is the tension of the run-up to Sunday, which routinely breaks out into full-scale clashes. Punctuating the drama are neat parallels and unforced metaphors (Khaled’s asides on the migration of the monarch butterfly) together with Egyptian mores and beliefs: “Everyone said Egyptians abroad acted as if preserving their own little piece of success required they make sure no one else shared it.”

Perhaps the biggest success in this ensemble piece of a novel is Nagla’s mother. Flown in from Alexandria to help the family through their grief, Ehsan brings with her old-world charms, superstitions and unshakeable religious faith to ward off the evil eye she claims is fixed on them. “I do pray for all of you in each of my five prayers ... I don’t know what else I can do.” Sometimes she is more of a hindrance, other times she is the glue that binds them together, but always she is a colourful scene-stealer.

Only Hassib’s coda disappoints, taking the form of a limp and syrupy fade-out. But from her first page to her denouement we can be gripped and moved by a study of the fault-lines within an immigrant family.

This book is available on Amazon.

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance ­essayist and reviewer.