Tuesday, 14 January 2020

The Pact We Made by Layla AlAmmar

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“I realized a long time ago that, in a lot of ways, my body is not strictly mine. It’s a shared entity, something to be criticized, guarded, commented on, and violated.”

The Pact We Made is a stunning debut novel by UK-based, Kuwaiti-born novelist Layla AlAmmar.

AlAmmar slowly peels back the layers of Kuwaiti society – a society in which young men and women drink and take drugs and party - just so long as their parents never find out. Where women go to university and take high-powered jobs, but are not considered adults until they marry. Where the police can be called if a couple is seen embracing in public and where arranged marriage is still the default.

“We like to think of ourselves as a well-traveled, cultured and thoroughly modern people. Xenophiles who welcomed expats long before Dubai ... We’re the ones who brought cellphones and commercial airlines to the Gulf. We’re the ones in constant search for the new, the wondrous the techtastic.

The narrator is Dahlia, one of a trio of life-long friends who, as little girls, once made a promise to get married on the same day. But now they are in their late twenties. Two of them, Mona and Zaina, are married but Dahlia continues to turn down suitor after suitor, to the fury of her increasingly desperate mother.

This might be another tale of young women negotiating modern life in a traditional society, but Dahlia, we learn, was abused through her teenage years by her mother’s cousin. And it is the lasting consequences of that abuse that reverberate throughout the book.

On the surface, all appears to be well, but underneath every day is a struggle.

“It sometimes felt like I as put my past in a hole and spent my time shoveling dirt into it, but like some cheap horror movie, it kept trying to claw its way out ... So, I sailed the world’s longest river; fake it till you make it, and all that. Normal behaviour is a language you can learn”
This balancing act cannot be sustained forever and in the end Dahlia will be driven to a devastating choice.

AlAmmar’s language is fresh and original without ever being flowery. Time and again she catches you with a phrase that takes your breath away. The constant panic Dahlia feels, for example, takes on the form of a demon – the yathoom – who “comes in the night, sits on your chest, feet splayed in a squat, growing heavier and heavier until you wake because you can no longer breathe.”

An extraordinarily powerful, gut-wrenching book that lays out in no uncertain terms the case for  women to have control of their bodies and their lives.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, When I Hit You by Meena Kendasamy

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories centred on the aftermath of sexual abuse

Perfect Accompaniment:
Goya’s Los Caprichos and a cup of saffron tea

Genre: Literary Fiction

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