Books

Yumna Kassab
The House of Youssef

A man tends to his shop alone as he clings to the desperate hope that his sons will one day show interest and take over his business. A divorcee shrugs off advice from her family, who tell her to find another man or stay out of the sun to protect her once-pale skin. A woman worries that the life that she and her family have built in a new country will be for naught.

In Yumna Kassab’s debut short-story collection, The House of Youssef, these vignettes form a tapestry of longing. Largely set in Western Sydney, the collection sees Kassab’s Lebanese immigrant characters questioning the idea of home while tending to their obligations and aspirations. Under the shadow of Islamophobia, trauma and white supremacy, they simultaneously buckle under pressure, lash out, contend with their circumstances and yearn for better futures. The spare prose only highlights these themes: some stories (“Covered”, “Some Use”) are microfiction, while others (the titular section, “The House of Youssef”, and “Darkness, Speak”) come together in fragments to chart the thoughts and regrets of characters who reckon with some of migration’s failed promises. Familial bonds play a huge role in both anchoring and dismantling a character’s trajectory, underscoring the complexities often present in ethnic migrant families – in a foreign land, all you have is one another.

Kassab’s deft hand with form comes through most strongly in her microfiction. Much like in Kafka’s shorter work, the mood is set immediately, yet an array of possibilities infuse what is unspoken. In longer stories (“Homing”), it’s clear that stylistic choices are determined by whether something needs to be opaque or emphasised, either open to the reader’s interpretation or a fact that Kassab wants to affirm.   

The House of Youssef does a stellar job of locating the inherent contradictions of people coming to grips with a chaotic and threatening world. Time takes on a non-static quality as characters derive meaning from their present to create evolving visions of future-pasts. Despite the fear and unpredictability in these characters’ lives, they are buoyed by a faith that their fate is only temporary. As such, each story is extraordinary in its ordinariness; the collection confirms that often it’s through brevity that whole worlds are formed.

Cher Tan

Giramondo, 288pp, $24.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 19, 2019 as "Yumna Kassab, The House of Youssef". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Cher Tan