Book Review: Remembrance of Lebanon Past (Updated With Interview)

This first novel from Arab-American writer Thérèse Soukar Chehade, who teaches English Language Education at a school in Amherst, Massachusetts, turns out to be a thoughtful family portrait that deals subtly with the variegated experiences of being outsiders in a strange land and the pulls of loss, memory, and desire.

Loom by Thérèse Soukar Chehade. Syracuse University Press, 168 pages, $20.

By Nora Delany

Loom places us in the most familiar of New England landscapes—small-town Vermont under the thick snowfall of winter. We could be in a Robert Frost poem. Instead, we are in the world created by Thérèse Soukar Chehade, a Lebanese writer who has lived in Massachusetts for over a decade.

The Zaydan family, like Chehade, are transplants from Lebanon, making a life for themselves in New England. As families go, they are typically dysfunctional. Living under one roof, they are constantly on each others’ toes, building resentments, harboring petty jealousies and secret desires.

Emilie, the matriarch, has withdrawn into silence in this new country, her memories more alive than the present. She lives in close quarters with her spinster daughter Josephine, her son George, his wife Salma, and their teenage daughter Marie. Josephine, dependent on her brother George, spends her days smoking and staring at the neighbor—whom Marie has dubbed Loom—as he labors in solitude, building a giant structure in the snow. Emilie, Josephine, George, and Salma remember Lebanon and are constantly drawn back to the country in their thoughts even as they attempt to build a new life for themselves in Scarabee.

George operates a successful convenience store, catering to locals who, after all the years he’s lived in Vermont, still ask “if George is his real name, as if waiting for the day he will finally confess to being named Ali or Ahmed, and still bringing up those damned camels.” At times he wishes to go back to Lebanon, still acknowledging that “nothing is ever simple. Things don’t fall neatly into place just because you’re home.”

His daughter Marie, who has grown up in Vermont, is pulled in the opposite direction; she has secretly applied to college, dreams of studying horticulture at Berkley, and is pulling away from her family and their alien memories of Lebanon. Of all of Chehade’s characters, she is the only one to speak to us directly (and precociously) in first person: “My boundaries are far and wide. I have worked so hard all these years on leaving my family, I am already half gone.” She is the typical second-generation American, impatient with her family’s past.

The Zaydans—not happy, but not necessarily unhappy either—await the arrival of glamorous, worldly Eva, Emilie’s niece and Josephine and George’s cousin. Eva is expected from Beirut, via New York, and reawakens in the Zaydans all the old thoughts and memories of Lebanon: growing up as secular Arab Christians—a group misunderstood in rural Vermont where the family encounter all kinds of misconceptions and stereotyping—a life of ease and vacations in the countryside, happiness until the Lebanese Civil War pitted sect against sect and devastated the country.

Eva alone had remained in Lebanon, and her return stirs up old memories and desires, not only associated with the country and the civil war but more personal memories that often cut closer to the bone. Josephine is again aware of her own inadequacy—never as glamorous, as sparkling, as good, or as successful as Eva. Emilie appears feel affection for her niece Eva that is deeper than her maternal affection for George and Josephine. As for George, he is nervous at the arrival of Eva, who once declined his advances as a lovesick youth. Eva is a linchpin and the others—except, perhaps, Marie, who is eager to leave the home and start her own life—impotently await her arrival.

Author Thérèse Soukar Chehade — sensitive to the voices of the domestic.

If Eva is one axis around which the novel turns, Loom is another. The Zaydans watch this man from a distance, but Chehade gives the reader a privileged glimpse into his story: David Finch, a quiet computer programmer from New York, had lost his wife and son in a car crash. Having relocated to semi-rural Vermont, Finch lives as a hermit, shoveling snow from his driveway and working to build a large structure of ice in the forbidding Vermont winter.

Constantly, Finch is reminded of his gregarious, loving wife—as social and out-going as he is shy and introverted. The house is full of delicate statues she has carved from wood: eggs, figures, animals. These totems are all that physically remain of Finch’s wife and of his life with her before the crash.

The seemingly incongruous worlds of Finch and the Zaydans are brought together first when Emilie secretly begins leaving plates of food for her neighbor, and he, in exchange, leaves his dead wife’s statuettes. One day Emilie disappears into the snow—she was known for wandering off on her own back in Lebanon—and ends up at Finch’s house, drawn by the ice sculpture. Her panicked family find her there and overwhelm Finch, so used to living alone by this point, with their boisterous presence. Finch is eager for his privacy back but relents as the Zaydans make themselves at home, cook dinner, and seem to bring Finch into their family—an outsider in the snow, full of old memories and desires of another time and place.

Chehade deftly weaves the connections between Finch-Loom and the Zaydans and teases out the similarities between the various characters as well as the tensions and differences that drive them apart. Ultimately, it is Loom who brings them together and binds up the fabric of the Zaydan family, despite the stubborn knots and pulls. At Finch-Loom’s house, the Zaydans are more of a family than they have been throughout the novel, and it is Chehade’s close attending to voice and character that makes this sense of family come across effectively.

Chehade’s voices are, in general, genuine and believable—disgruntled George and Salma, insecure Josephine, and playful, dreaming Emilie. The only exception is Marie who comes across as far too self-consciously mature for a teenager. What teenage girl voices to herself thoughts like “Who woudn’t be tempted to surrender to the ice and wind? I will be here when the earth returns” or “I am appalled that weeds must be punished for their vigour”? Chehade’s novelistic artfulness here is distracting, whereas, in other parts of the novel—those not narrated by teenage Marie—this type of reflective, self-conscious narration is quite beautiful.

Chehade succeeds most when dealing with the older characters, their memories of Lebanon, their struggles in Vermont, and their difficult and knotty relationships with one another. Loom is, by any account, a thoughtful family portrait that deals subtly with the variegated experiences of being outsiders in a strange land and the pulls of loss, memory, and desire.


Behind the Loom: Questions for novelist Thérèse Soukar Chehade

Arts Fuse: I’m curious to know how much you drew on your own experiences living and growing up in Beirut in writing this novel.

Thérèse Soukar Chehade: I drew extensively on my recollections of the civil war in Lebanon. Like Salma, I spent countless hours in the shelter, and her aversion for war mirrors mine. Another character in the novel, Eva, becomes marginally involved with the Christian militia.

Although neither I nor anyone in my immediate family belonged to a militia, there was always someone we knew who was. I grew up seeing young militia men at the store, the beach, at checkpoints… Back then they were part of life in Beirut—different militias for the different parts of the city. So there was this sense that these armed young men, who were in the end neighbors and friends and sons and cousins, were part of an extended family. There’s something very strange about realizing that people you know, people who can be caring and good to their families and friends, can go out and kill other human beings because the context of war makes the killing justifiable. This dichotomy was very familiar to me and also very unsettling, as it is to Eva, although she is eventually able to rationalize her feelings when she marries someone from the party.

AF: You’ve titled your novel Loom, and Loom (David) is, in a sense, at the center of the story. At the same time, he is arguably one of the most mysterious and tight-lipped characters. Like the Zaydans, he is also a transplant to Vermont, and he, too, carries with him memories of loss and love from another place.

Chehade: Loom is an instrument in drawing the Zaydans out of their isolation. He is always fixing things around the house and in the yard. He fascinates and intimidates them and represents someone who might help them gain full entrance to the country. He’s America, always there when they look out the window, but also mysterious and inaccessible. He stands for the new life they desperately want to launch into but don’t know how.

At the same time, he is someone with his own story and private sorrow and he is not available to them, although by storming in on him, so to speak, they force him to notice them. In his presence, they grow more generous toward each other, in great part because they’ve finally broken out of the stagnation of the last few hours. There is a sense of release in their taking off like that. Perhaps this is very American of me, the notion that doing, rather than waiting or standing still, will get you what you want, or at least bring you closer to it. Loom, who is a positive force for this family, is in constant motion despite the snow. On the other hand, the energy that he expends in building the igloo for his dead son is misplaced and sad.

Loom is the seed that grew into a novel. It’s almost embarrassing to mention this because it sounds like a cliché, but he came to me in a dream: there was a man shoveling snow, and a voice calling out Loom. He remained a mysterious and remote presence during earlier versions of the novel, until a friend suggested that I should develop his character, and I did.

AF: The crux of the novel takes place when the Zaydans find themselves at Loom’s house; it seems here the Zaydans create a sense of family and fellowship that they are unable to create in their own home. The family dynamics in the novel are complicated; there are petty jealousies, fears, love, frustrations. Marie is impatient to leave for Berkley; Emilie is silent in this new country. What thoughts do you have on the complex relationships between the various family members who at times seem at odds with one another? Also, tell me a bit more about how Eva triggers complex emotions in the other family members.

Chehade: You are right in your assessment of their relationships, although, and this might seem odd, I see them ultimately as a loving and tightly knit family. Their feelings stem in part from their frustration at finding themselves still struggling with identity after eighteen years in the United States. It’s as if, as Emilie says at one point, they’re still leaving. Also, being stuck together in the house during the blizzard only magnifies their frustration and reminds them (with the exception of Marie) of similar times when they couldn’t leave the house or the shelter because of the war. Putting them in this situation was intentional of course, because this is what pushes them out of the house eventually.

The other catalyst is Eva. I see her as the lurking presence in the sinister sense that you mention in your earlier question. Loom/David pervades the novel and the landscape, but it is Eva they run away from when they take off in the blizzard, although I think they are also running toward her. I created Eva’s character to channel and trigger the complicated feelings the Zaydans have about Lebanon and their past. They love her but she has deeply hurt them, and now she’s coming for a visit. This is cause for a great deal of unrest and anticipation.

I think that most people have mixed feelings about home, especially when, along with happiness, it brings up memories of war and violence. Eva sets off the same strong reactions. Like home she haunts their lives, and memories of her warm and break their hearts. And like home, she always finds her way back to them.

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