This review contains spoilers.
For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.
-Viktor Frankl (quoted at the beginning of A Good Land)
The second book about the Middle East I have picked up off the shelf in the last few months. The first was Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa (reviewed here), a novel that focuses on the conflict between Palestine and Israel. A Good Land is set in Lebanon, and while the final sections do revolve around the bombing of Lebanon by Israel in 2006, Jarrar’s novel is much more about the search for identity and the investigation of character than it is about war.
I like the structure of this story told in six parts, the first four from the perspectives of different characters. Layla, born in Lebanon but raised in Australia, returned to Beirut out of some need for Lebanon she can’t quite explain. Fouad, born and raised in Lebanon (he seemed sort of a peripheral character, and I’m still not sure why he had his own section). Kamal – a Palestinian refugee and a writer, who feels Beirut is his home. And Margo – the most intriguing character, an old woman, Polish or Czech, who lives in the same apartment block as Layla and Kamal. She connects with people easily, and has many friends. But she is deeply troubled, haunted by her past. When she dies it becomes clear that she wasn’t always honest with her friends about who she was.
The last two parts of A Good Land jump between perspectives, mostly those of Kamal and Layla, and cover the 2006 conflict (“War”) and life in Lebanon afterwards (“Hope”). Margo’s memories (or perhaps Layla’s imagining of Margo’s memories) also feature prominently. The last two sections also focus largely on the romantic relationship between Layla and Kamal.
At times I found A Good Land a bit too contemplative. The same question seemed to be repeated (mostly from Layla) over and over: Why am I here? This pondering coupled with a large amount of waxing lyrical about childhood places and landscapes became a little tedious. The love story was also a bit much for my taste – a little on the mushy side.
However, there are a lot of interesting ideas in this novel; intriguing universal questions about loneliness, happiness, purpose, and belonging. And Jarrar’s descriptions are often poetic and lovely. A Good Land offers a glimpse into a world that is different (for me, at least) in landscape and culture but recognisable in theme and feeling. An absorbing and interesting novel.
Nada Awar Jarrar was born in Lebanon but fled with her family during the civil war. Her other novels include Somewhere, Home (2003) and Dreams of Water (2007).