The Frightened Ones

Knopf. Aug. 2020. 208p. ISBN 9780525655138. $25.95. F
Short-listed for the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, this new novel by Syrian author Wannous (The Chair) purveys fear as a tangible force so intense that it creates a claustrophobic reality. Suleima, an anorexic young artist who suffers from panic attacks and continuing grief over losing her beloved father at the vulnerable age of 14, waits at the psychotherapist’s office for her appointment. There she meets Naseem, a novelist whose prominent features attract her attention. They become lovers, but Naseem immigrates to Germany, and the remainder of the narrative unfolds simultaneously as the manuscript of a novel he sends her and her responses to its content. Disturbingly, his protagonist, Salma, has a life very similar to that of Suleima and suffers the same debilitating fear of being afraid that paralyzes nearly everyone in this extraordinary work, which offers insight into Assad’s Syria, authoritarian control, and the workings of the human psyche.
VERDICT Issues of safety, security, and a sense of belonging, as well as thoughts on dreams, life, love, family and death, are all integral to this complex, multifaceted work. Flawlessly written and translated, it is highly recommended and would be useful in many discussion groups. [See Prepub Alert, 2/4/20.]

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