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Erica’s Pick of the Week: Behind You Is The Sea

Behind You is the Sea, by Susan Muaddi Darraj, is billed as a novel, but it reads more like a collection of linked short stories. Whatever it’s called, it combines the best of short and long-form fiction: sensitively drawn portraits of singular characters, set in a world that gives continuity and context to their lives. Immersive, honest, and emotional, it’s an early contender for my favorite of the year.


The book follows three Palestinian-American families outside Baltimore. Their lives intertwine across decades in moments large and small: weddings and funerals, parent conferences and school plays. Each chapter focuses on one character, such as Reema, a pregnant teenager balancing the grief of her father’s impending death with her determination to keep her baby.  Police officer Marcus tries to engineer a reconciliation between his father and sister while dealing with his high-maintenance girlfriend. Rania navigates educational bureaucracy with the help of a cutthroat lawyer – only to find her world upended by a hashtag. As years pass, side characters from early chapters take the spotlight, bringing new perspectives. Reema’s younger sister grows up aimless until a single moment unearths her drive; Rania’s lawyer pursues happiness despite her family’s disapproval. And Marcus, the only character to get two stories, briefly returns to Palestine to bury his father – and possibly transform his life.


These people are complex and distinctive, deeply rooted in their culture and community – and yet, it’s impossible not to empathize with Raina’s exhaustion at always being the rock her family leans on, or Marcus’s frustration with his father’s rigidity. This mix of personal and universal makes for compulsively readable stories, illuminating a culture too often portrayed without nuance. 


The title comes from an Islamic conqueror who burned his troops’ ships on the eve of battle, telling them, “Behind you is the sea, before you, the enemy. You have left now only the hope of your courage and your constancy.” Similarly, these characters have nowhere to go but forward. They can neither live in the past nor retreat to their homeland. For most, America is their homeland. Instead, they must forge on, through the challenges of gender roles, generational differences, and more. The question is, can they face their futures with hope and courage? And what does victory look like?  

Authentic, resonant, and powerfully told, Behind You is the Sea is perfect for fans of Vibhuti Jain’s Our Best Intentions and Etaf Rum’s Evil Eye.


Categories: Books and More

Tags: Books and More

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