The Boy from Aleppo who Painted the War by Sumia Sukkar
|The Boy from Aleppo who Painted the War by Sumia Sukkar|
|Category: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: Liz Green|
|Summary: A powerful and haunting account by a 14-year-old boy of the Syrian civil war and its effects on his immediate and extended family. A bleak, disturbing, haunting, beautiful, unmissable read.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 322||Date: October 2014|
|Publisher: Eyewear Publishing|
This is a book about colour against the grey backdrop of the Syrian civil war. Adam, the 14-year-old narrator, is an artist who describes emotion, people and things in colour. Through colour, he makes sense of the world. So his sister, Yasmine, 'is usually ruby' although at times she is grey or green. Adam’s views are simple, uncomplicated – he says ‘Lying is bad’, ‘I don’t like the war’ and ‘[Paintings] always say the right things’.
It is never stated directly, but we presume that Adam is on the autistic spectrum. It would be wrong to imagine, however, that this is a book about autism. Rather, Adam’s autism is a device by which Sumia Sukkar gives us an apolitical view of the Syrian war being experienced by Adam and his family, from the perspective of a boy who has the words, but not necessarily the understanding or judgement, to describe what he sees. Telling the story through a boy like Adam is a masterstroke. His simple interpretations and his mix of terror and acceptance at what he sees serve to underscore the tragedy of the situation.
Adam says of his brother: 'Hardly anyone notices his presence, but it’s hard for me to overlook his aura’. In occasional sentences like this, a little too much emotional awareness creeps into his voice. But that’s being picky. Overall, his words resonate with authenticity. He asks endless questions, demanding to be at the centre of every conversation, like a small child. When his brother says he doesn’t have time for him one day, Adam does not understand. 'How does he not have time for me? There are 24 hours a day and 1,440 minutes. He doesn't use them all. He is just sitting down not doing anything now.' Even as a mere reader, it is exhausting being inside Adam's head.
There is an immediacy to this book. Not just because it is written in the present tense – Adam is a boy who lives very much in the moment. What makes it a really hard read is the fact that the events depicted, the civil war, the bombing, the torture, the exodus, are happening right now as I write. However deep-rooted your compassion fatigue, this book will jolt you out of your cosy existence, demanding to be read. The events depicted happen to a middle-class, educated family (the father is a teacher, the three older sons are at university, the daughter is a nurse) – in other words, people like us - who lose everything. The words are easy, the prose flows beautifully and the plot moves forward effortlessly, but the story is grim, and could never be otherwise.
The Boy from Aleppo contains hideous scenes and some members of Adam’s immediate family face unthinkable trials. Khalid and Yasmine, who revealed her fragility early on in the story, display the most extraordinary fortitude in the direst of situations and this jarred with me somewhat. We all break eventually.
There are warmer aspects to the book, too. There is a strong sense of family and unwavering faith throughout the book. Adam loves his father and his siblings, and they love and care for him. But, of course, the harder they love, the harder they fall…
The book treads a careful non-partisan line, avoiding the complicated politics of the war. Yes, there is mention of Assad and yes, we know that Adam and his family are on the side of the rebels. But we know no more than that. We don't know whether they support any particular one of the very many rebel factions at work. Adam's three brothers are initially politically active, to varying degrees, but there is a telling scene towards the end of the book in which Khalid, one of the brothers, comes across a former comrade. The comrade admits that no-one from his family has died, to which Khalid replies That’s why you’re still interested in politics and I'm not. In the end, Adam’s family are all too beaten to do anything but claw at survival.
Inevitably, a book like this is going to invite parallels with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon. But that would be specious. The only thing the two books have in common is that they are both narrated by a challenged teenage boy. In some ways The Boy from Aleppo is not about the narrator at all. It is about the way a civil war affects a family, a community and a city, and about the way a boy who has all the understanding of a small child tries to make sense of this.
This is one of those books that, like The Help by Kathryn Stockett and Birdsong by Sebastien Faulks, should become compulsory reading in schools for its simple truths. It leaves you filled with nothing more than a sense of the utter futility and indiscriminate nature of war.
Should you read it? Yes, yes, yes.
FURTHER READING SUGGESTIONs
Heart of Darfur by Lisa French Blaker is an account by a humanitarian nurse of her time in Darfur
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie follows the lives of three characters before and during the 1960s war between Nigeria and Biafra
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You can read more book reviews or buy The Boy from Aleppo who Painted the War by Sumia Sukkar at Amazon.com.
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