In its broad strokes, Minor Detail is a blistering allegory about state violence and the conscription of women’s bodies. In its minor details, it offers a piercing account of everyday life for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. A “dump site reverie” is how our Palestinian heroine describes one of the novel’s lighter moments, when she is distracted by colourful piles of trash and children busily selling gum to people waiting to pass through one of countless Israeli checkpoints – free passage is not permitted even across designated Palestinian areas. Later, stuck at a dead end where the road no longer matches her memories of the earlier settlement, she gets out of the car to double-check that the roadblock in front of her is real. The unnamed protagonist admits early on her inability to determine where borders start and end, as if such a failing were her own.
The first half of the novel depicts the capture, gang rape and murder of a Bedouin girl, as engineered by Israeli officers, not long after the events of the 1948 Nakba. In the second, a woman living in contemporary Ramallah reads a brief account of the girl’s murder and is struck by an odd coincidence: the woman was born on the same day 25 years later. This connection, this minor detail, is tenuous but it is enough to spark an empathetic curiosity regarding the girl and her fate. The woman borrows a colleague’s identity card and embarks on a dangerous road trip across the occupied territories, hoping to find out more – something, anything – about the girl’s experience during the final days of her life. To both narratives Shibli applies the same set of symbols – barking dogs, spiders, the smell of petrol – establishing the sense of a shared and volatile present. The events of the first section are not historical; decades later, the machinations of that conflict – surveillance, violence and fear – are still playing out. So the die is cast, and the question that drives the plot is whether it is possible for the girl and the woman to survive under such conditions. Is there hope?
This is Adania Shibli’s third novel; her previous books, Touch and We Are All Equally Far from Love, are also available in English translation. All three are striking for their moral acuity and crystalline prose – here, the translation by Elisabeth Jaquette is superb. Minor Detail is a credo for revolution, a major book: tense, propulsive and timely.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 13, 2020 as "Adania Shibli, Minor Detail".
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