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by Nathalie Abi-Ezzi
Reviewed by F. P. Crawford

Nathalie Abi-Ezzi's semi-autobiographical first novel A Girl Made of Dust is a fascinating and beautifully-written look at the hardships of life in a small Christian village near Beirut during Israel's 1982 invastion of Lebanon through the eyes of a seven-year-old girl, Ruba Khouri.  Ruba's family bears the psychological scars of the preceding six years of civil war in Lebanon.  Her father has suffered some unspecified trauma – which Ruba blames on a witch's curse – and sits listlessly like "a boulder overgrown with moss", rarely speaking or leaving the house.  Ruba's mother, a woman with a "shrunken-fig heart", struggles to provide for her family while still maintaining her sense of self.  Ruba's only solace comes from her few friends, her grandmother, and her brother, Naji, who is increasingly drawn out of childhood and into the world of men as the war closes in on their village.

Abi-Ezzi does a wonderful job of depicting the destruction of the war through a child's naïve eyes; Ruba speaks in lyrical metaphors yet remains ever a seven-year-old girl.  A coffin moves through a street clogged with mourners "like a boat with no sail"; a bombed out building Ruba sees while passing through Beirut looks as though it had "been burrowed into by giant mice that had left a million holes"; a door hangs from its broken hinge "like a loose tooth that needed just one good tug".  This writing style had the odd effect of simultaneously heightening the war's horrors and distancing this reader from them.

Deceptively simple, Abi-Ezzi's book is a small war story – no deep messages (thankfully, since those are usually actually trite), no attempt to explain or analyze the war (although politics does creep in when Ruba eavesdrops on adult conversations that she doesn't understand – the least successful parts of the book, in my view), and no gallant acts of heroism.  Abi-Ezzi focuses instead on how the small, seemingly insignificant choices individuals make in impossible situations can change their lives forever.  I confess that the full weight of the book didn't hit me until basically the last page, but that page was like a powerful punch in the stomach.