Dreams of Water

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 March, 2007, 12:00am

Dreams of Water

by Nada Awar Jarrar

HarperCollins, HK$240

As Israeli bombs rained down on Beirut last year, Lebanese writer Nada Awar Jarrar wrote for a British newspaper about life in a family at war: their flight to the family home in a mountain village, the gathering of provisions, her fears for her children, and the overwhelming, exhausting sadness.

She wrote of her thoughts about the last time civil war broke out in Lebanon - August 1975, when she was a schoolgirl on holiday in Britain with her sisters and Australian-born mother. 'We thought it would just be a matter of one or two weeks before we could go back home, but I did not return for good until 20 years later.'

Just before this new war broke out Jarrar had been polishing her second novel - one inspired by that earlier conflict and tackling the legacy of civil war and the difficult issues of displacement and belonging.

They were themes explored in Somewhere, Home, her debut novel which in 2004 won the Southeast Asia and South Pacific section of the Commonwealth Best First Book award. Jarrar, who now lives in Beirut with her husband and children, spent her teenage and early adult years shifting between London, Paris, Washington and Sydney. Notions of home - Where is it? What is it? - are a preoccupation.

Whereas Somewhere, Home focused on three Lebanese women, each in some way displaced, Dreams of Water (subtitled 'My family, my life, my Lebanon') has at its centre one young woman, Aneesa, who returns to Lebanon from London, where she fled after the disappearance and presumed murder of her politically active brother.

Aneesa, a translator, began to make a life for herself in London, forming a close bond with an elderly Lebanese man, Salah, who moved there reluctantly to live with his only son, Sakim, after the death of his wife.

But she returns to Lebanon, not so much to find her brother as herself, and writes to Salah of her efforts to readjust and the discovery that Lebanon is for her a second skin she has readily slipped back into. She writes of her mother, Waddad, who, having searched long and hard for her son, Bassam, now sees him as reincarnated in an eight-year-old boy, Ramzi, born a few days after Bassam disappeared. Ramzi lives in a mountain village orphanage where Waddad volunteers, but she plans to bring him home to their Beirut flat.

Dreams of Water moves back and forth between London and Beirut, past and present, Aneesa's and the other main players' viewpoints - Salah, Sakim, Waddad and even Bassam. Initially, it's difficult to follow - in fact, without the back cover precis, making sense of it would be a major challenge. Even with that aid it's both confusing and frustrating as Jarrar gradually introduces her characters and their back stories, dropping details like crumbs that the befuddled reader clutches at in an effort to make sense of it all.

But the pieces begin to fall into place as the narrative unfolds and the beauty and sensitivity of both the story and the writing, for which Jarrar was so deservedly praised on publication of her first book, reveal themselves. The evocation of place - the mountain villages, noisy, again-thriving Beirut, grey London with its charms - is magical, the depictions of daily life incisive, the story moving and ultimately uplifting.

The beguiling Dreams of Water rewards patience, initial reluctance to continue replaced by regret that this journey is drawing to a close, that Jarrar leaves us wanting to know more about her characters and that our own imaginations must take up the tale where she leaves it.