The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi

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The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: Alex Merrick
Reviewed by Alex Merrick
Summary: At The Baghdad Clock's heart it seemed to have something interesting to say about how war affects relationships. It displaces humans and displaces their perception of time. It is a shame it was let down by a weak story and too many symbolic images.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 266 Date: May 2018
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
ISBN: 978-1786073228

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The Baghdad Clock is a tale of two friends growing up during the first and second Iraqi war. Shahad Al Rawi uses magic realism to illustrate the displacement felt by a young girl and her neighbourhood. The novel introduces us to the various characters surrounding the protagonist. They are full of life and yet never seem to add anything to the central narrative. Rawi, it would seem, has a problem with telling a story.

Rawi uses classic magic realism tropes to illustrate her themes of the resilience of children, love and displacement. Dreams are prevalent in her novel as is overtly symbolic language. The narrator describes how she was seeing her [friend's] dreams. This was the first time in my life I had entered someone's dreams. Rawi references other magic realism novels as if she has to make sure the audience understands that this is what she is writing. She appears not to have faith in her audience and herself. The above quote is an obtuse reference to Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. The main character in this novel meets like-minded people within his dreams. However, the most conspicuous reference is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Rawi uses this novel in her story to emphasise her own themes of displacement and loss.

To begin with, this is an interesting post-modern technique to build the world the author is creating for the reader. She writes in those days devoid of meaning, I came across the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude in my father's library. The more she uses this novel as a symbol the less impact it has. For fans of magic realism, it comes across as a cheap trick to enhance her own themes by association with this seminal work. It forces the reader to compare the two and forcing the reader to compare her debut novel with One Hundred Years of Solitude indicates her own misplaced hubris.

It is important however, to view this debut work as a new, for this reader anyway, perspective on the Iraqi wars. These wars are still highly controversial. The second being seen as illegal and unjust. Coming at a time of great jingoism and paranoia, the West was eager to point the finger at anyone. Hatred had to be directed somewhere, that somewhere was Iraq. The American occupation of Iraq is shown as being a time of great upheaval for all the characters. They are displaced and filled with fear and anger. The Marines came for our future and smashed its windows. The U.S. troops shown as being great liberators by the West are symbolised by destruction and confusion. Rawi uses the two wars as narrative lynch pins. We see the narrator and her best friend Nadia meet in their adolescence, during the first war, and then come of age during the second. The way in which the first war and the Past has an effect on the characters during the second war and the rest of their lives is key.

Rawi releases these experiences from a timeless past into the temporal horizons of a concrete present. Understanding Derrida and post structuralism is central to Rawi's message about time. Our present is separate from all other events, its nowness excludes it from both past and future. However, it is both our individual past and an uncertain future that colours our views and perceptions. Rawi writes that 'the past rolls up the present and swallows that which is to come.' For these characters, the past, present and future will always be closely linked to the wars.

It is with this vaguely philosophical writing that is my biggest gripe and through its use, the story suffers. A key rule of prose is to not use purple prose, it is pretentious. Although this reader is not surprised considering she uses One Hundred Years of Solitude as a key signifier. The narrative is an afterthought to Rawi's key message about the displacement of time through life changing events. This can be used to great effect. Many writers have written novels merely as a camouflage for their own philosophical message, for example Camus' The Stranger, Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra and Rand's Atlas Shrugged. The key is these authors cover their musings with a compelling story. Rawi becomes too burdened with phrases such as Love is the air that doesn't need lungs. and Days that do not have a clear name – those are the days when hope ends. These phrases create a barrier that the reader must transcend if they are to believe in the character and their narrative.

Rawi writes with such enthusiasm for her subject matter, she injects her characters with beautiful quirks and personalities. However, these fully formed side characters are distracting. They detract from the main story. Rawi tries so hard to write something profound and meaningful that she ends up neglecting the story. If you want to read more about Iraq and the Iraq occupation, War Against the Taliban: Why it All Went Wrong in Afghanistan by Sandy Gall is an informative and easy to read book discussing a complex situation. If you would like to read more magic realism, then pick up The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende.

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