Cover of book: Politica

Yumna Kassab

Encountering Yumna Kassab’s work for the first time with her novel Politica, I needed to readjust my lens. Kassab does not write in a linear manner, with backstory and world-building, but in short and sharp vignettes. Some seemingly stand alone, some interact with others, but all are intrinsically linked to create the full story.

The result is a compelling, intricate and multifaceted tale of a Middle Eastern town that has been long affected by war. A host of characters interact with their situation in a number of different ways, revealing the pushes and pulls of people trying to survive. Politica tells, for example, stories of intergenerational love and conflict – a father and daughter are revolutionaries in the struggle, while the mother wishes for a more peaceful and family-orientated existence for her daughter and grandchild. Or the tensions of a polygynous marriage, which a later chapter reveals is a situation that has been forced upon all involved.

The unnamed conflict is framed to be colonial in nature, as many conflicts in the Middle East have been, although it’s not explicit. The chapter “Taxi”, in which a father is doing everything he can to learn English as “the global language”, illustrated this for me – through a tale of seeking knowledge and perhaps hoped-for assimilation, I found a point of identification with some of my own family’s struggles with colonisation.

Kassab’s economy with words is compelling – she can effectively communicate an entire life’s narrative for a character in a few short paragraphs. This is not the case for every character she introduces: some develop over decades, making repeat appearances through the text via their interactions with others. In chapters such as “The Flame of Peace” or “The Name”, fully formed and complex life journeys are narrated succinctly, leaving the reader in shock by the end.

I found Politica a challenging read: its style made it difficult to get into at first. Once I did, it was a rewarding tale of real people navigating war, love, loss, poverty and many other challenges, all linked by time and location. The novel asks if it is possible to ever measure the personal cost of war. Through all the stories she creates here, Kassab makes it clear that it can never be.

Ultimo Press, 272pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 1, 2024 as "Politica".

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Cover of book: Politica

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