1320 This maelstrom of emotions
by Rahela Nayebzadah
Hamilton, ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 2021
$20.00 / 9781989496305
Reviewed by Theo Dombrowski
Not many would expect that a novel called Monster Child would be a comfortable read. In fact, “comfortable” is just about the last word any reader would use of this debut novel by Rahela Nayebzadah. Towards the end of the novel, the author writes that the refugee couple at the centre of the novel “came to Canada with nothing but stories, lies, and secrets.” Very much the thematic core of the novel, the assertion also opens the door on a complex narrative tangle.
For a short novel, Monster Child packs a big narrative wallop. To some extent it is a novel about the Afghan immigrant experience in Canada: not for a minute is the reader able to forget that all the chief characters are Afghan, thoroughly steeped in their culture and religion. Second, though, it is a novel about family relationships: rarely do any of the characters step outside their roles within a family defined by the twists and pulls of the connections that bind them to and alienate them from each other. Simultaneously, and combining both of these threads, this is a novel of mounting crises, traumas, and tragedies, all leading, in the final pages, to escalating drama, deepening confrontations, and shocking revelations. Most striking about the narrative colour of the book, though, is the fact that Nayebzadah’s imagination has seized gritty realism by the throat and wrung out of it grotesque — almost gothic — unrealities. Visitations from ghosts are one thing — and these moments do stain the novel indelibly — but quite another thing is the fact that Shabnam, the older daughter, both involuntarily and voluntarily weeps blood. Buckets of blood. Torrents of blood. And all of these threads develop in well under 200 pages.
The vitality of the author’s imagination is equally strong in the narrative structure she chooses. Divided into three sections, each narrated from the point of view of one of three teenaged siblings, the novel interleaves patches of time between March and June, 2000. Although, therefore, the chronology isn’t neatly linear, the overall flow of time is, along with the sense of a strongly propelled storyline.
Equally salient to the storytelling technique is the manner in which the author deftly implants apparently insignificant details near the beginning. In the backyard, for example, is an apple tree, Mâdar’s (that is, “Mother’s”) pride and joy. Next door lives Jonathan, a silent, brooding foster child. It is part of Nayebzadah’s care to shape her novel that, in the climactic chapters, these return with startling impact.
The real narrative spine of the novel, though, is the three sibling narratives. Beh, the youngest in the family, is also the most externally extraordinary. The first sentence of the novel, “‘You’re a disease, Beh,’ I was occasionally told….” sets the tone — especially, when in the same paragraph she announces that she has tried to seduce her English teacher. Described by her sister, Shabnam, as “like a runway model,” she also considers herself essentially like a boy, given to obscene sneers. She happily derides, for example, visitors’ “dipshit daughters,” or asserts, “it fucking reeks in here.” Often utterly fearless, she stands up at her school’s poetry contest, for instance, and shocks the entire assemblage with a torrent of different words for excrement.
It is characteristic of the way that Nayebzadah handles her characters, though, that she gives Beh a sharply different side as well. Sexually assaulted early in the novel, she crumples and implodes. Although she manages to assert her anger enough to write an abusive poem, she also suffers silently, and, more important, decides, “I am tired of being a disease.” Her vulnerability in feeling guilt for what she imagines she has done to her mother is only matched, in the end, by her extraordinary refusal to be a victim. She speaks.
Shabnam, the older sister, may seem comparatively subdued at first, but, as is so often the case in the book, the comfortable and contained can break out into the grisly and shocking. From the beginning, Beh suggests that it is Shabnam who is the “monster” of the book’s title, an identity that Shabnam herself accepts. Recalling the fact that her biological mother died at childbirth from a “retained placenta,” she broods on the fact that amongst the rumours surrounding her was that “I ripped through her stomach with my sharp teeth” and that “I weep birth mâdar’s blood as a punishment for taking her life.”
Functioning throughout much of the novel as a trustworthy reporter of the rest of the family’s conflicts, she becomes the grotesque epicentre when she decides to flood her surroundings with blood. About to witness her sister’s humiliation at her school’s poetry contest gone horribly awry, Shabnam asserts, “I’m left with no other choice than to flood the gym with my tears.” And she does. Her fellow students’ reactions hardly seem surprising: “I’ll never forget the screams, the looks of terror….”
And Nayebzadah doesn’t shift to a lighter tone with her third narrator, the oldest of the three siblings and the only boy, Alif. On the contrary. It is true that, as with his sisters, part of his function is to act as a sharp observer of his immediate and extended family. More than his sisters, however, he shows himself to be torn by the discord between his parents — in part, he points out, because while daughters are considered only “guests” in the family, he, as a son, “had his entire fate mapped out.”
Considering what happens to him in this role, he fulfils the author’s dramatic purposes only too well, even, arguably, outperforming his sisters. Not just his growing hatred for his aggressive father or “Padar,” but also his equally growing sense of failure for not protecting his mother fuel a sequence of violent outbursts, both self-destructive and destructive.
All three narratives, though, are connected most pivotally through the notion of the “monster.” In the most straightforward terms, Shabnam is a “monster” simply because she cries blood. However, she is tormented that she is a monster in a deeper sense for addressing Mâdar with the debasing term “nana andar” (step mother). Alif, likewise, guilty for the way he treats Beh, growls, “I’m just like Padar,/ Monster, monster.” Likewise, after being attacked by her cousin Amir, Beh chants, almost hypnotically, “Monster, Monster/I am a monster.” The contagion of the word spreads: in school, Beh is called a “monster” by the other students; Padar in a drunken nightmare shouts the word with horror, and Alif, in his own horror, cries, “Mâdar is a monster.”
The conclusion of the book is haunting, but also desperately sad. Alif leaves the readers with his last words: “We’re all the monsters of the world, a sister that cries blood, a sister that bled by the hands of her family, and then there’s me. I don’t even know my own blood.” In these terms at least Nayadzadab has made her tale, above all, a moving tragedy of three siblings.
Clearly, even though the narrative emerges through the voices of the three siblings, it is about much more than their lives. Equally, it is their relationships with their parents that make the novel also about marriage. Witnessing her parents each cruelly telling a story to shame the other, Shabnam confesses, “No child thinks that their parents would be better off divorced, except for me.” Her admission, “It’s exhausting. It’s heartbreaking” is echoed later by Alif’s groan, “both are equally miserable, treating each other terribly” (even, at one point, with physical violence.)
And yet — and this is the first qualification — both parents reassure their disbelieving children, repeatedly, “this is what married couples do.”
And, and to make her treatment of marriage even more tonally complex, the author shows both parents to be occasionally — but deeply — nurturing. At one turn, Padar sings a traditional song, the “Bazaar song” along with Shabnam while Mâdar smiles and “appears relaxed.” At another, he delivers an almost sentimentally overcharged encomium on each of his children, comparing each one to a positively charged Afghan icon. Emotions dialled up to eleven, the parents and children turn from bouts of angry shouting to emotionally drenched forgiveness and reassurance. In one of the most powerfully nurturing incidents in the book, a desperate and miserable Shabnam is soothed by the mother who “blankets me with her dress, blocking out the worries of the world.”
Throughout this maelstrom of emotions, at least some of the forces driving the behaviour of parents and children are, as the author repeatedly emphasizes, the forces of Afghan culture. In fact, as much as this is a book about family, it is about what it is to be an Afghan in Canada. Almost directing Beh and Shabnam to be aware of the readers, the author has them go out of their way to explain rituals, traditions, and ceremonies. In addition, few novels about a non-English-speaking culture are as penetrated with non-English vocabulary as this one. Sometimes the words seem to be chosen because they are so fundamental (many are foods or terms of address); other times because they have no simple translation. “Esfand,” for example, is “incense burned to ward off the evil eye.” The effect of this huge number of words in Dari, a dialect of Persian, will vary with the reader: some will be frustrated with all the page-flipping to the glossary; others will be fascinated.
Probably the most appealing version of the culture comes through Padar’s newly opened restaurant, the Afghan Nomad. The wall paintings, rich with scenery, like the menu, written in the purplest of prose by Beh, really do seem appealing.
At the same time, the author can hardly be seen to be trying to celebrate the culture. In fact, many Afghans just might not be happy with the way that their culture is represented. It is hard not to feel the author is taking a wicked delight in opening her book with a description of the ritual slaughter of a sheep, and following this up with what some sensitive readers might feel is more than they want to know. A dish involving a sheep’s head smashed against concrete to dislodge the mucus won’t appeal to many.
Two less superficial aspects of Afghan culture, though, seem to propel Nayebzadah’s need to make her readers see. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, these are, first, the Shia version of Islam in this community, and, second, the relationships between men and women.
“For once, can we all put a pause on being Muslim?” Beh rages when Padar insists they go to mosque rather than visit their hospitalized Mâdar. The entire extended family is meticulous in their devotions, the chimes from the clock in the house converting a celebratory meal into a room full of devotions (and, as Beh irritatedly observes, water from the ritual cleansing creating chaos in the bathroom.) The fact that she has earlier explained that hers is a “devout Muslim family” with a detailed code of behaviour, fuels the flagrant hypocrisy of the fact that her cousin Amir, in spite of being able to recite the Quran, can, guilt-free, commit violent sexual abuse. In one particularly challenging scene, Nayebzadah fully immerses the reader into a ceremony at the mosque by a “freakish looking sheik.” With what is presented as mass frenzy, the event builds toward the point that “the sheik screams” and “Loud chants are screamed by the men” as they struggle to reach the “alam,” “a long pole dressed in green fabric, with a big hand placed on the very top.” Even Beh, the cynic, finds herself swept up in the frenetic mood.
Most problematic for many readers, though, is the role of women. Some of the examples are commonplace and predictable. In the celebratory meal the “selfish men” eat first, followed by the “reserved” women. The women clean up while the men help themselves to saffron tea and snacks. Equally predictable, perhaps, is the fact, as Shabnam comments, “Foolish Afghan parents think that marriage solves all of women’s woes.”
The two daughters, though, are fiery in their expression of the way they are treated by their culture. Says Beh, “I am a girl. I am a disease.” The comparatively mild Shabnam goes further, concluding her tirade about the “curse” of “being born an Afghan girl,” by saying, “growing into an Afghan woman is a bigger curse.” Even Alif, the boy, laments that his parents in their insistent values, are becoming “stereotypical,” in his mother’s case “choosing to stay quiet.” While it might be possible to dismiss some of this anger as the outbursts of rebellious teens rather than reflecting the author’s own views, the narrative thrust leaves very little wiggle room for varied interpretations.
How much the ugly behaviour is, in the author’s view, the result of mistakenly clinging onto an old culture in a new country isn’t clear. She does, unambiguously, make clear that the one “white Afghan” family in the community, parading their western lifestyle, are, at best, laughable. For the others, trying to find contentment within Canada is fraught. For a neighbourhood boy to assert, “You people are fucking weird” might seem comparatively harmless, but uglier is the race-motivated vandalism directed at Padar’s newly opened Afghan-themed restaurant in Kitsilano, a “white” neighbourhood. Why? The answer, according to Alif, is the breaking of an unwritten law of Vancouver: “foreigners like us have their own designated areas to run a business.”
Sadly, but perhaps predictably, Alif admits to being smeared in school with racist slurs like “shit on a stick.” And, if there is any doubt that grating discord between the Afghan community and Vancouver mainstream culture is limited to a few cases, Beh asserts the opposite. “Most Afghans in Vancouver” after many years, according to her, “begin to curse Canada and say, ‘We should just have stayed put….’” As for the young generation who try to break free of the culture, as Alif says, “I’m brown and I’ve seen what happens to us kids. We turn into junkies, get adopted by some privileged white family, mysteriously disappear … end up dead in some ditch.”
The portrait of the Afghan immigrant experience is clearly not rosy. Yet, the novel is set in 2000, as the author repeatedly reminds us. That worse, much worse, might await the community in another year (and another 20 years after that), the readers are left to contemplate. At its dark core a novel about a family bound by both affection and pain, Monster Child is, more, a distillation of a world caught in the nets created by culture, society, and the past.
Born on Vancouver Island, Theo Dombrowski grew up in Port Alberni and studied at the University of Victoria and later in Nova Scotia and London, England. With a doctorate in English literature, he returned to teach at Royal Roads, the University of Victoria, and finally at Lester Pearson College at Metchosin. He also studied painting and drawing at the Banff School of Fine Arts and at UVic. Visit his website here. Editor’s note: Theo has written and illustrated several coastal walking and hiking guides, including Secret Beaches of the Salish Sea (Heritage House, 2012), Seaside Walks of Vancouver Island (Rocky Mountain Books, 2016), Family Walks and Hikes of Vancouver Island (RMB, 2018, reviewed by Chris Fink-Jensen), as well as When Baby Boomers Retire. He has recently reviewed books by Genki Ferguson, Keath Fraser, Matthew Soules, Karen Hofmann, Barry Kennedy, and Ann Shin. Theo Dombrowski lives at Nanoose Bay.
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