Monday, July 10, 2023

Yes, You Should Read A Pure Heart by Rajia Hassib

Yes, You Should Read A Pure Heart by Rajia Hassib: A Book Review

After I read In the Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib, I located her contact information and messaged her how much I loved her book. Later, she would write a special post for this website about her childhood library ("The Missing Library") and a book recommendation for the somewhat annual series Book Your Stocking. Later, she not only read Hezada! I Miss You but also found it worthwhile. 

As soon as I learned of her next novel, A Pure Heart I pre-ordered it. But it wasn't until this summer that I finally began reading it. First, at the park over the July 4th weekend--on the grass beneath the hammock where my son rocked, reading his own book. (What joy to read your own book while your child reads his own!) And then, this past weekend, I packed it up to Umatilla National Forest with the intention to finish it. And I did, this time reading it in the hammock alongside my son, later on the porch, and finally finishing it by headlamp in my bunk--dogs snoring around me, child dreaming in his bunk beside me, and through the window the stars blinked fully visible in the dark, perfect sky. 

How nice to read a book.

And even better that it was a good one. 

And this one.

What I most appreciate about Hassib's writing is her careful precision in making her sentences, and in this way, unwinding the story. There's no rush and no waste. She writes purposefully and with a sure hand. It's easy to trust that she's taking you exactly where you need to be. Of course, I'm not one to skip pages, skim paragraphs to the dialogue, or start a book by reading the last page (my mother does this), so perhaps the most curious/impatient reader will continue such habits--even with Hassib. But her writing is so strong, like that of a sturdy dance partner, that it seems that one couldn't skip about and find any enjoyment in doing so. 

A Pure Heart follows the lives of primarily three people: Rose and Gameela, two sisters who grew up in Cairo, Egypt and Mark, a white journalist from the United States who marries Rose. Early in the novel, we learn that the younger sister Gameela (in her mid-twenties) has died in Egypt, having been near a suicide bomber when he exploded. The rest of the novel is, then, the retracing of how Gameela came to be there. Rose is the one trying to retrace all of this, but it is the reader who will finally learn how everything came to be.  

Rose, the older sister, is an archaeologist now living in New York where she's pursuing a doctorate in Egyptian history; when Gameela dies, Rose returns to Egypt briefly for the funeral and to console their parents; while there, she collects her sister's belongings from their once-shared room. She takes the items back to New York and studies them as she does artifacts, in order to discover a narrative or solution to the mystery of how her sister came to be at the site of the attack.

Rose knows her journalist husband has played a part in her sister's death, as he had travelled there in the past few years to write an article about life in Egypt after the Egyptian Revolution. While there, he asks Gameela for help locating a source to profile. 

I really appreciated Gameela as a character. I found her the most interesting, perhaps because we learn about her from multiple perspectives--including her own--or perhaps because, as it is her death that's the source of the mystery, the narrative revolves around her such that she is inherently interesting. She is the most dynamic of the characters--not only because she is constantly negotiating between who she is and how she allows herself to be perceived, but also because she is developing her own personality and beliefs informed by, but separate from, her parents' and sister's beliefs.

Early in the book, when Rose and Mark first become engaged, Gameela disapproves of the marriage, does not understand why her sister would leave Egypt, and distrusts Mark's genuineness in converting to Islam in order marry Rose--which Rose sees more as a gesture toward custom than she does a religious or legal requirement. But Gameela has recently dedicated herself to being a strict Muslim, wearing her hajib outside and around her throat, praying and speaking scripture. This way of being makes her family feel awkward around her, and Gameela feels hurt by this.

Later in the novel, as she grows up, graduates from university, takes a job, and starts to fall in love, she finds herself becoming more moderate in her adherence to religious rule-following. This is both an interesting shift in character, and Hassib writes about it beautifully:

"[Gameela's] religiousness had followed a curve that reminded her of the sensation of jumping into a pool feetfirst: a deep and speedy plunge in, followed by a slower, gentler journey up, until she finally reached the surface and, gasping for air, trod water with unexpected comfort. Her dive into the hijab followed a similar curve: rapid, at first, rigid in her eagerness to be fully submerged in obeying God, followed by a gentler bobbing up, not away from God but toward a more lenient devotion to His commands. She would never, ever abandon her head cover; but she had grown to see her hijab more as a sign of her acquiescence to a loving God than as a measure of avoiding His wrath" (223).

The man Gameela falls in love with does not fit the cultural expectations of who she should fall in love with. This, too, Hassib writes about with an intimate kindness and interest--how Gameela must tiptoe around to learn how he feels about her, how she accepts gifts from him but--unable to ask him how he feels--tries studying the objects for answers (as her sister will later examine Gameela's belongings as though they will explain her death). Gameela finds herself in a terrible predicament--wanting both to honor her culture and parents and to find love with a man her parents would reject. In order to please everyone, and it is her impulse to please, to assure, to prevent any tension or conflict for others, she begins to lead a double life--to do so, she must lie by omission to her parents, sister, and best friend and repeatedly disappoint the man who is waiting for her to sew her lives into one life. 

Affecting all of the characters, their lives, and relationships are questions about the relationships between identity and culture, tradition, stereotypes, religion, beliefs, place. The novel asks us to wonder what it is that makes us who we are, and what are we when only our objects remain. The novel deftly moves from Egypt to New York to West Virginia--the metropolises of New York City and Cairo versus the less populated places of Rasheed and Charleston. In the same way that Hasib wonders about the similarities across religions, she notes the same tensions between urban wealth and urban poverty--what a society prefers to hide or ignore and the repercussions this has on everyone--both those who are made to hide and feel ashamed and those who do the shaming--often by creating laws that enforce shaming. 

How can we be so entrenched in our own perspectives that we can't understand another's? The novel deftly deals with this question, in raising it and answering it, in how carefully every character is treated in an attempt to reveal the person beneath the stereotype. It's all far more complicated than we lead each other to believe, the novel suggests, but not impossible to fathom. 

A Pure Heart is a beautifully executed novel of people, place, and the inner turmoil we find ourselves in both because of and in spite of our culture, upbringing, and experiences. Yes, you should read it.


You can find A Pure Heart via 

P.S. I do not profit from links you click. Click them all. I'm not a capitalist. I just want you to know about this book, and I think writing about it is the best way to tell you.