Review for "A Woman is No Man" by Etaf Rum (2019) Rating: 4.1 out of 5 stars
I just finished this book last night. I went back and forth between a 3 and a 4 for a while before finally deciding on a low 4, with reservations.
“A Woman is No Man” is the story of three generations of Palestinian Muslim women and the lives they lead, which are completely constrained by the demands of men, child-rearing, family, their community, and faith. The story begins in the early 90’s with Isra, a young girl growing up in Palestine whose marriage is arranged to Adam, a Palestinian-American man. They marry and go back to New York City, where over the next several years, Isra bears four daughters. With each pregnancy Isra becomes more and more depressed, sad, and eager to please Adam, who drinks and beats her. Her mother in law, Fareeda, is cruel as well, constantly demanding that she give Adam a son.
The story continues with Deya, Isra’s oldest daughter, in the late-00’s. She is a young girl going to a Muslim school and living in NYC with her grandmother, Fareeda, who is attempting to marry her off to a Palestinian man. We are told that both of her parents died in a car accident when she was 7 years old. She has very few memories of her mother. Deya does not wish to marry, but to go to college. She never questions the story behind her parents’ demise until she receives a letter from a stranger, who begins to counsel her and eventually, tell her the truth about her parents. As she learns about the tragic past, Deya’s memories of her mother come back to her gradually and she grows stronger in her desire for independence.
The narration of the novel shifts between Isra’s account and Deya’s, and later on in Part II, Fareeda’s voice is thrown in, whom we learn also has secrets in her past. I didn’t have a problem with this, but the pacing of the novel is a problem. At about 75%, we find out the truth of what really happened to Isra and Adam. The book drags on for another 25%, repetitively repeating each narrator’s details of an event that we already know about.
Another problem is the lack of nuance of this book. In traditional Palestinian society, women are married off young, expected to raise children, cook, clean, sit at home, and wait for their husbands to tell them what to do. They are discouraged from reading, going to college, or venturing anywhere outside their homes without a man. Every page or two, a character’s words or actions remind you of this until you’re practically screaming: “WE GET IT!” I understand that the author really wanted to drive home her point about the suffering of women, but there’s such an excessive amount of detail given here that if I weren’t careful, I could begin to assume that all Palestinian households are like this one. I know better, though. The lack of nuance is so strong here that the story tilts toward being unrealistic, the characters one-dimensional.
So, there it is–a 4. I do recommend you read this book, however. Perhaps you’ll like it better than I did.