Reviewed: The Lovers, Yumna Kassab, Ultimo Press
What is love? This is the question Yumna Kassab’s third book poses, amongst others: is it ever really about other people? Is it possible to love and stay free? To make it last?
An analytical fable about one couple, Jamila and Amir, The Lovers is a similar project to Alain de Botton’s Essays In Love (1993). It probes at our myriad varieties of self-sabotage, the corrosive effects of our delusions, and the pitfalls of idealisation. ‘I’d probably describe it as a dark fairy tale,’ Kassab told The Garret earlier this year.
In the same interview, Kassab described her stories as ‘ecosystems’. Her work—from debut collection The House of Youssef to previous novel Australiana—uses a fragmented style that, as she has discussed, can be seen to link them together. And in The Lovers, a story preoccupied with the mosaics we make of ourselves, she marries this form to theme.
The book’s folktale mood is complemented by the votive simplicity of Mika Tabata’s artwork on the cover. The Lovers’ wisest and best storyteller, Samir, cannot read or write. But throughout the novel, his tales stand as opaque signposts: the farmer and the bird, the king and the slave, the dog and the roses. Like the couple’s dreams and visions, each one asks about desire, expectation, freedom and disappointment. A larger question lingers: is it better not to hope for happiness, and so, perhaps, manage to avoid pain?
As Jamila and Amir push at the boundaries of this enquiry, they are revealed to us without specifics, closer to archetypes (an interest of Kassab’s) than characters. Jamila is a rich woman visiting from an overseas ‘there’; Amir is poorer, chained very much to ‘here’. The locations are never named, and the couple’s courtship is recorded in a series of brief scenes: soft glimpses of landscape and human interaction; on the road, the terrace, at the card table, the cafe, in bed. Kassab has cited Federico García Lorca’s Poet in New York, and there’s something of its rhythm here: the rise and fall of language in small arcs; a declarative eye coming to rest on a man, a woman, a bird, a city. These are mythic images, woven through nets of human vulnerability and disillusion, lives reduced by the inequities of class.
Amir carries a vicious awareness of the financial limits on his life, and Jamila’s tendency to sentimentalise them. ‘You have money but will you sense possibility when your money runs out?’ he wonders. This works just as well as a metaphor for love. Both characters grapple with other sources of cynicism: painful histories, friends caught in problematic patterns, love as a cover for violence and coercion, or a precursor to abandonment, a society full of prescribed ideas about how relationships should play out. Still, Jamila and Amir each reflect the beguiling power of love as a tool to structure the self; how much our identities are bound up in who and how we love. Kassab reveals how romance exposes human insecurity and the lies we tell ourselves as we yearn, like Jamila, ‘to weave [it] into a larger pattern’––to avoid the spectre of judgement, of rootlessness, and above all, of ‘uncertain loneliness’. The test of a relationship, Kassab suggests, is how we handle those revelations.
At one point, Amir turns to the wisdom of Khalil Gibran: ‘Stand together yet not too close. You are but the witness to the other’s life.’ Kassab’s sentences echo with similarly sombre mysticism (‘where there’s breakage, there’s damage’; ‘these hurts of the past will not protect us from the future … but we go forth in life, we dance as best we can’): neat axioms without much variation in pace, which soon have a flattening effect. But it’s a tone that also binds her delicately tessellated work into a manifesto for love. This sense of ceremony marks an author unashamed to put a premium on emotional intensity––and that is invigorating.