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I the Divine by Rabih Alameddine (thoughts)

September 14, 2011


The Hakawati was one of my very favourite reads of last year. Naturally, that meant I wanted to read the other three novels he’s written, but my library doesn’t have any of them (this is unusual)! So when I was on the interlibrary loan system last time, I decided to request one of his books: I the Divine was held by the most other libraries, so I began there. And what a wonderful place to begin!

This is subtitled A Novel in First Chapters, but it’s nothing like If on a Winter Night’s a Traveller. No, every first chapter is about Sarah, and each is a different attempt by her to write her life story. Alameddine uses the structure perfectly to parcel out the information we receive, and to look at how truth and memory and stories are all interrelated. What I love most is the changing view of the people in Sarah’s life…her stepmother, for instance, is written about first as fulfilling that ‘fairy tale’ trope, but later Sarah begins to focus more on her humanity instead. Not to mention the circling of various ‘key’ events allowed for such depth, it really took my breath away. Have I mentioned how strong a writer Alameddine is? Sarah tries various tones for her memoir, and Alameddine conveys the different flavours perfectly. Every page was a pleasure to read. By the end of the novel, I felt like I knew Sarah and her friends and family quite vividly, so the structure merely enhances the story and characters, rather than being the focus a la Calvino. You wouldn’t have to be into experimental/postmodern fiction in order to love this book, promise! All you need is a love of stories. :D (That being said, if you share my fascination for narrative reliability, get thee to a library/bookstore immediately!)

I do want to give a heads up (and thus a bit of a spoiler, although it’s not ‘key’ to the plot in my opinion) to those triggered by rape scenes. One of the chapters describes a rape, and while it’s done in a sympathetic way, there are still a couple pages detailing the actual event, as well as the rest of the chapter explaining the aftermath. I almost wish Alameddine had chosen to kind of ‘jump’ from the moment when it’s obvious what is going to happen to the aftermath, just because that kind of detail can get stuck in a person’s brain, but it’d be easy to hop over on your own (I originally wrote down the page numbers for reference, but now I can’t find them: it was around the middle in a chapter that describes her catching a taxi in Beirut). And if you can’t bear to read about the aftermath either, the whole thing is isolated to that one chapter. Anyway, as I said, I think Alameddine handled it with power and tact, but I’m still not entirely convinced it was necessary. Don’t let this put you off the novel, which is wonderful and definitely not an ‘issues’ book!

Suggested Companion Reads

  • A Border Passage by Leila Ahmed (An actual memoir that looks at a lot of literature as well, and a book I really should blog about considering how much I loved it, I think it would make a wonderful counterpoint!)
  • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (While Sarah consciously reshapes her life story, trying on different angles as it were, Ishiguro’s narrator is entirely invested in his own life narrative as Truth. This is one of the most powerful narrator-driven novels I’ve ever read.)
  • My Mother’s Wedding Dress by Justine Picardie (An absolutely wonderful piece of narrative nonfiction, many of the essays involve Picardie looking at her fammily from different angles, which reminds me a bit of Sarah’s goal.)
  • True Notebooks by Mark Salzman (This is about Salzman’s experiences teaching creative nonfiction in a juvenile detention facility in L.A.: there’s definitely an emphasis on the power and writing and stories that I think would go well.)
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11 Comments leave one →
  1. September 14, 2011 4:02 pm

    I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m tempted to try it out even though The Hakawati was just kind of so-so for me. This one sounds really neat :-)

  2. September 14, 2011 4:09 pm

    Eva, this sounds amazing. Not an author I have ever heard of, and I’ll have to check out if his books are readily available in the UK – but I’ll be doing that now!

    • September 17, 2011 2:17 am

      I’d love to see your take on this! I think he’s available in the UK, hope so at least. :)

  3. September 14, 2011 8:05 pm

    What a novel approach to a novel! I’ve just reserved it via inter-library loan! Thanks for the recommendation – and the warning about the rape scene – I may just skip that.

  4. September 15, 2011 12:40 am

    Wonderful review, Eva! I still have ‘The Hakawati’ on my ‘TBR’ list. I remember your wonderful review of it, last year. The way ‘I the Divine’ has been written, sounds quite interesting. I found it quite interesting that you have compared it with Calvino’s ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’.

    I loved your comment about Ishiguro’s ‘The Remains of the Day’. It is one of my alltime favourite books.

    • September 17, 2011 2:17 am

      I just thought of Calvino since it’s also a novel written in first chapters! V different though. Remains of the Day is wonderful, isn’t it?

  5. September 15, 2011 4:07 pm

    I read this 5 or 6 years ago and loved it. I remember recommending it to everyone, but struggled to sell it as beautiful rather than pretentious. Can’t imagine why I’ve never picked up any of Alameddine’s other books.

    • September 17, 2011 2:18 am

      Yes, it’s difficult to describe w/o it sounding a bit hoity toity or ‘experimental.’ ;)

  6. September 15, 2011 10:05 pm

    This sounds like a really interesting book, the way it is told really intrigues me. Thanks for the warning too though – good to know that going in!

  7. September 24, 2011 11:37 pm

    I love this book. LOVE it. So glad you’ve found it. I read it in the pre-blogging years and have never really mentioned it, though I often recommend it to library users. Perhaps time for a reread…

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