Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Sweet Dates in Basra by Jessica Jiji — 368 pgs

Living in Iraq in the '40s, Kathmiya Mahommed, a thirteen year old marsh girl, is sent out of her family's home to begin life as a housemaid in Basra. Kathmiya is very unhappy about this development, as she has been secretly longing to be married and become mistress of her own home, but her meetings with several marriage brokers have proven to be fruitless. During her first week at the job, Kathmiya meets Shafiq, the teenage brother of her mistress. Though they are from very different sectors of life, they begin a dangerous attraction and flirtation that will change the course of both of their lives. Meanwhile, the people of Shafiq's community are struggling with the advent of WWII and the increased prejudice against the Jews who live side by side among their Muslim neighbors. As Shafiq and Kathmiya learn to navigate the ways of their hearts, they also learn that although there are differences between those in their community, there are also several startling similarities.

I have to admit that I wasn't crazy about this book. For the first half of the story, the writing seemed very muddy and undeveloped. There was an unfocused quality to the story and it took a few tries to actually get into the grist of the story. I actually put the book down for awhile and read something else before picking it back up again. When I did get back to it I had to spend an awful lot of time trying to psych myself up before beginning to settle into the story. Coupled with these problems was the fact that Kathmiya was an unmitigated whiner. I got really tired of her haranguing her mother, sister and anyone else who would listen about the unhappiness of her life. She seemed so sour all of the time and it was really hard for me to like her. Aarti mentions much the same reaction to Kathmiya in her review and I would have to agree with her. Kathmiya was just tiring.

On the other hand, the story had a lot of great intrigues going on within it. I really liked the mystique surrounding the secret of Kathmiya's past and felt that the author really did a wonderful job of keeping me in suspense over those sections. I wanted to know more, and ultimately, that's what kept me turning the pages furiously. After the blundering of the first section of the book, I felt like the author had recovered nicely and turned this into a very entertaining novel that kept me guessing. I almost wish that the Kathmiya's secret had been alluded to earlier on, that way I wouldn't have felt so hopeless about having to make my way through the book. I also liked the way the supporting characters had their place within the mystery. It was a great coming together of all the aspects and players, and had this been the main thrust of the narrative, I would have enjoyed the book much, much more.

Although I had my problems with Kathmiya, I really found myself enamored over Shafiq. Whenever he was on the page, I knew that I was sure to have my interest captured. Shafiq's portions of the story felt more weighty and important, because not only was he dealing with his attraction to Kathmiya but also the severe tensions that the war in Europe and the British settlers were bringing into his homeland. He was an unapologetic supporter of the Iraqi way of life and liberties, and several other characters and their problems with the political situation were woven within his story. There were some very moving and revealing sections about the problems that the Jews of the community faced during these times and I thought that it was extremely heartening that most of the community refused to see separation between the Jews and Muslims and treated each other as neighbors and brothers. It was nice to see that even in extreme situations, the people of Iraq formed such a great sense of community.

There were also some really moving and emotional scenes in the book that I felt gave the story a really great depth and range. From the death of one of Shafiq's most beloved friends to the wrongful imprisonment of a suspected Zionist, I felt that there were some absorbingly dramatic turns within the narrative that really gave the author full use of tension and emotional atmosphere. Even the conclusion of the book hinged on a bit of drama and I found that I appreciated the slightly messy and unresolved ending more than I would have had everything been neatly tied up with a bow. There was a really good mix of pathos embedded within the story that I thought was very interesting.

Though there were definitely some really great things about this book, I would have to say that it wasn't really a spectacular read for me. I felt that the story's slow and laborious start coupled with the unlikeablilty of the protagonist really ruined most of this book's appeal for me. It certainly wasn't the book I had been expecting when I picked it up. I feel that it's a shame that I was so prejudiced against this book from so early in the story, but I really felt that I couldn't help my reaction to it. I am unsure of who I would recommend this book to, as I am sure that most readers wouldn't have the patience for such a slow start combined with a whiny character, so I will just close this review with the conclusion that this book had it's moments, but overall, it was an uneven read.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

11 comments:

Beth F said...

The premise and the cover (yes, I love it) called to me, but I really don't need whiny characters. I think our reading tastes are enough alike that I can safely take your word on this and I'll let it pass.

Ti said...

Hmmm, doesn't sound like a book for me. Maybe some editing would have helped tighten it all up.

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

Ah, how unfortunate :( Sounds like an interesting story, but as Beth mentioned, I regard your reviews considerably and feel we have similar tastes. I may sadly move past this one as well.

Harvee Lau said...

It might be worth reading for the historical setting and background info. Too bad the main character was so annoying.

Harvee Lau said...

It might be worth reading for the historical setting and background info. Too bad the main character was so annoying.

Suko said...

It sounds as if a more likeable protagonist would have helped this book succeed with more readers. Thanks for your honest appraisal of this book.

bermudaonion said...

I had high hopes for this book so I'm disappointed to see it's not that good.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I was never planning on reading this one, but for your sake, I wish it was a bit better:(

Aarti said...

Oh, I remember Kathmiya whining all the time about getting married! I got so tired of her. Glad to know I wasn't the only one ;-)

Ana @ things mean a lot said...

I like the cover too. Sorry to hear it was so uneven!

Buried In Print said...

I appreciate unresolved endings; I especially like them when they present as such, but I'm personally sure that I know how it will end (all the while realizing that another reader could just as likely choose the "opposite ending" in their own mind).

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