Psalm 119 by Heather McRobie

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Psalm 119 by Heather McRobie

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Ruth Price
Reviewed by Ruth Price
Summary: This challenging literary debut explores the intertwined lives of three young people, involved in varying degrees with the political conflicts of the early 21st century. It combines dense, linear narrative with comments and poems from a narrator-poet, as it explores its main characters' development to a shocking denouement.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 255 Date: July 2008
Publisher: Maia Press Ltd
ISBN: 978-1904559337

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Psalm 119, the longest Bible psalm, means happy are those whose way is perfect. In this novel, the characters make both physical and emotional journeys, with very different outcomes on their roads towards perfection.

Vapid, beautiful Maria/Marie/Anne-Marie attaches herself to wealthy, handsome, politically concerned David as freshers at Oxford. Both form a friendship with the gentle, diligent Mohammad. The novel explores their lives over a four to five year period, as David and Mohammad become actively involved in political conflicts, while Marie drops out of college, buys designer clothes, sunbathes, and ultimately experiences a harrowing epiphany.

With the opening page of this novel, I felt distinctly underpowered as a reviewer to do it justice. The first words are not written by the author, but by the Persian poet Rumi (1207-73) - (according the BBC the most popular poet in America). Sadly, I'd not heard of him, and apart from including some lovely poems, Heather McRobie doesn't tell me anything about him, although she makes use of his work freely. I found her use of Rumi's poems, and the poet's role as a kind of oblique narrator, without any kind of footnote or reference, frustrating at times. So to grapple with this novel, I had to do a little extra reading, and also wanted to find out a little about Heather McRobie.

I then found an article written by her for The Guardian, bemoaning people's interest in the lives of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, rather than looking purely at their literary output. I think this explains her use of Rumi without explanation – poems are supposed to stand by themselves. This may work for some readers, but I found it distracting and confusing. I desperately wanted a foreword or footnotes or endnotes somewhere. It really would have helped me understand – but perhaps the author wanted me to do a little work. Having done this, I did find it helped me get to grips with it, though I have to confess to skipping a few sentences in the poet-narrator sections (bad reviewer). I still don't understand the Samson and Delilah references, though I am normally a sucker for a nice biblical reference. It was as if there were two stories going on in this novel; one which I was interested in, and one which I wanted to skip. Clearly, the Rumi chapters were meant to cast light on the rest, but they didn't work for this reviewer.

Going back to the main story, something about the major characters of this unusual novel reminds me of the island-like status in which McRobie appears to place poetry . They all remain disconnected from their environment, yet often seem to be in the centre of things, whether wanting to be in the most exciting, or the most besieged city. David is a Jew in Palestine, Mohammad works for Amnesty International, but tries to stay in the background, Marie doesn't even have a set forename. David describes other young people leaving Palestine to visit other war zones as conflict tourists, yet that is a title which could be applied to this trio.

I was very impressed with McRobie's ability to create a sense of place. Within a sentence or two, by describing certain incidents and incongruities, she gives the reader a taste of Oxford, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Palestine and the Balkans – as in Anne-Marie's passing elbow…was spat at by an Israeli soldier; her uncovered ankles by an Arab woman…. I also loved the last couple of chapters. When McRobie lets things happen in her story, the strong foundations of her characters bring events vividly to life. Just when I was drawn into these characters – the novel ended in a dramatic fashion.

I find it hard to say what this novel was about, other than the emotional journey of its characters. In the final paragraph, Mohammad comes to an understanding, and expresses it to the reader. I didn't understand it. I think he is saying that we are all disconnected and that others are not what we imagine them to be. But I could be wrong – I suspect that it's meant to be oblique. Or perhaps it's only oblique to me.

I can recommend this book, but warily. You will need to concentrate (and possibly skip the odd chapter). If you are prepared to do that, there is wonderful writing to enjoy, with plenty of subtle irony on its literary journey. The story strengthens as it progresses, and will happily stand re-reading.

Thanks to the kind people from Maia Press Limited for providing this challenging debut from Heather McRobie.

If you like novels with a multi-cultural theme, you may enjoy Brick Lane by Monica Ali or The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. A Partisan's Daughter by Louis de Bernieres will appeal to those who seek an intense reading experience – there are similarities in style between McRobie and de Bernieres.

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