I reviewed Haji's earlier debut novel, The Writing on My Forehead, which clearly set up the writer's interest in the post-9/11 milieu. The Sweetness of Tears continues in this tradition, but focuses in this case on a complicated intergenerational saga, twining together two families. The ostensible protagonist is Jo March, obviously named after the lead character from The Little Woman, and we can see some resonances with that character. She is headstrong; she is independent; and she continually moves the plot forward. Haji takes on a number of different narrators here, including Jo's mother Angela; Jo's neighbor across the street, Deena; Jo's biological father, Sadiq (Deena's mother); and Jo's grandmother (at the conclusion of the novel). Early on in the text, the tension is set up when Jo discovers that her biological father is a man that her mother had only the briefest of romantic dalliances with as a young woman. Jo struggles to understand the importance of this different heritage, which presses upon her to explore languages associated with South Asia and the Middle East, as Sadiq is of Pakistani descent. Jo takes her mother's advice though and keeps the information both from her twin brother, Chris, as well as from her father, Jake, who knows of the situation from Angela, but not that Jo is now aware of this truth as well. Thus, a shroud of secrecy envelopes the family, but Haji makes clear that this complicated web is only one generation of romantic struggles. Much of the novel is also invested in the excavation of marital troubles that follow Sadiq's mother, Deena, and her eventual husband, Umar. This relationship clarifies the strongly religious undertones of the novel, which go beyond the Christian-centric March household. Indeed, Deena must consider what options she has when she falls in love with a man of a different Muslim sect, thus initiating a Sunni-Shia religious breach. Much of the novel seems to be invested in locating various sorts of religious and karmic reconciliations. The novel is particularly successful in tying up all the loose ends related to each major character. Haji is a very gifted storyteller, but the question of this book is rather about audience: for some, the conclusion may come off as maudlin. Certainly, though, Haji does avoid the typical PTSD-veteran's story by actualizing characters from various ethnic and religious backgrounds, showing how trauma must be borne unequally and across cultures and nationalities. Kudos must be given to Haji for tackling such a tough topic and infusing her representational landscape with an obvious politicism.
For my earlier review of The Writing on My Forehead, please see:
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