Billed as “A Novel In First Chapters”, you already get the sense that this is going to be a very ambitious book. There are many literary novels that are comprised of pretentious gimmicks but this is far from pretentious and it’s a long way from a gimmick. In fact, it’s one of the most imaginative novels I’ve ever read. Truly astonishing and it takes a writer of immense gift to pull something like this off.
It tells the life story of a Lebanese-American woman named Sarah Nour El-Din who is attempting to compose her memoirs, only writing the first chapter then scrapping it to begin again. Each chapter is “Chapter One” of this proposed memoir and it takes on many different approaches and styles, which is what makes it a very interesting read. Sometimes it’s straight memoir, other times it’s written in a novelistic third person, other times it’s written from the point of view of one of her friends or relatives, other times it is written in French. What makes this novel the brilliant one that it is is that Sarah’s story unfolds in bits and pieces with each writing attempt and the more you read it and with each revelation the more well rounded a character Sarah becomes.
Sarah Nour El-Din is one of the more interesting literary characters you’ll ever come across. Although the story is about Sarah, throughout her various attempts to write her life story, you become very well acquainted with her family, friends and lovers, all of whom are well developed and thought out characters in their own right, each contributing their bit to Sarah’s story as well as revealing a bit of their own. And that’s just the point - every person’s story is incomplete without the input of those around them who help craft and shape it; that we wouldn’t be who we are without these overt or subtle influences others have on us throughout the course of our lives. It tells how interconnected we all are, even if we see ourselves as individualists, that the actions of others will have an effect on our lives and our selves whether we like it or not.
The voice is key here. It’s not an easy feat for a man to capture the voice of a woman but Alameddine captures Sarah’s voice and unique personality brilliantly - so well, in fact, that you really believe you are reading an actual memoir. It takes a lot of talent to pull this off, in my opinion, and Alameddine has a lot of it. I was so impressed with this novel that I immediately sought out Alameddine’s other work, which I eagerly look forward to exploring. This is truly a highly ambitious novel that works on all levels and one that I can’t recommend highly enough. Read this. You’ll enjoy this journey and perhaps it will make you think about the events in your own life - your own story - as well.