Sirens of Baghdad, by Yasmina Khadra

January 17, 2011 at 20:29 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, War and Politics) (, , , )

7/10

Moulessehoul (Khadra) is foremost a terrific writer. He writes fabulously multifaceted characters and is not at all afraid of spending time on them, rather than treating them as simple plot devices. He manages this without letting his story drag, and is also unattached enough to allow his creations to drop out of the story quite suddenly, if his plot demands it.

The story itself began as a thought-provoking and painful narrative that claimed to offer unique insight into the Bedouin mindset. It is not immediately clear why Moulessehoul is qualified to offer us this insight, but he does it without flinching and without apology. He drifts a little from there into a rather bleak and almost nihilistic mood, with echoes of Orwell and sudden digressions, where he diverts attention towards a few rather peripheral characters, who often seem like mere soapboxes for the author to speak from: jarringly different from the main characters, and not altogether welcome, though they do serve well enough to exposit Moulessehoul’s agenda.

Finally, and rather unfortunately, the entire thing devolves into fantasy worthy of Tom Clancy, with an entirely unfulfilling and morally ambiguous conclusion. The book is not ruined by its ending, but its authority is quite badly dented. What began as a heartfelt lament turned into a third-rate political thriller, without any conviction of its own, and with a pace and a focus completely different than its beginning. The agony of impotence is done away with; the frustration and the powerlessness that made the narrator such an interesting character vanish in a whiff of smoke, and his moral dilemma is dulled into a pressured and rushed decision. There is a story to be told out of that, perhaps.

As a storyteller, Moulessehoul is exceptional, but sadly Sirens of Baghdad does not offer much in the way of original or compelling conclusions, or indeed any closure at all. It is this ambiguity–not only an open-ended narrative, but a schizophrenic sort of confusion as to what sort of story he is actually telling–that weakens an otherwise interesting novel.

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