Murphy, Tim. “Correspondents”, Grove Press, 2019.
Love, Family, Duty, War Displacement
A couple of years ago I read and reviewed a beautiful novel, “Christadora” by Tim Murphy. It was the first book I read by Murphy and I loved every word but we did not hear much about it. I worried that it would be a while until I could read something new from him and I was surprised to learn that he already had a new book out and once again I was in love with his printed page. The man can really tell a story and if that is not enough, he pulls you into it. This is a tale of love, family, duty, war, and displacement as well as an indictment of the ill-fated war in Iraq and the heavy tolls on its people that continues today.
We meet Rita Khoury, the very bright and very driven daughter of a Boston-area Irish-Arab family that has manage to rise (over the generations) from poor immigrants to part of the coastal elite. (I immediately started to guess who was the model for this character— Boston is a small town). Rita grows up with corned beef and cabbage on the dinner table alongside stuffed grape leaves and tabuleh, cooked by Rita’s mother, an Irish nurse who met her Lebanese surgeon husband while wat work at the same hospital. The resulting family is unconventional but close-knit and bonded “over summers at the beach, wedding line-dances, and a shared obsession with the Red Sox.”
Rita is ambitious and we see that in her studies at Harvard and unto work at one of the best newspapers in the country. Her post is cosmopolitan Beirut where she meets and dates a handsome Palestinian would-be activist. However when she receives her assignment to cover the America-led invasion of Baghdad in 2003, she is unprepared for the warzone. Her lifeline is her interpreter and fixer Nabil al-Jumaili, a restless young man whose dreams are damaged by life in a deteriorating dictatorship alongside his own seemingly impossible desires. Because of personal betrayal and the horrors of war, Rita and Nabil are forced out of the country and into uncertain futures What lies in wait will upend their lives forever, shattering their own notions of what they’re entitled to in a grossly unjust world.
With displacement as the major theme here, satire and heartbreak are obvious throughout. When I speak of displacement, I mean to think about Rita leaving her safe home in Boston to find herself in a war zone for which she was totally unprepared just as she was unprepared for the “violence America promotes both abroad and at home, and the resilience that allows families to remake themselves and endure even the most shocking upheavals.” Rita and her fellow journalists, photographers, and translators become something of a family as they witness to the violence, chaos and unrest that war brings. But we do not stop there as the novel spans generations, giving us a look at Rita’s family and what it means to be living in America (and abroad) in the aftermath of September 11th. It’s a character driven novel of those whose lives are complex and who are all too human. The family that was once connected by love becomes connected by war and across culture. We also get the chance to experience the complexities of Arabic language and culture and depictions of life in Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut as well as the anxiety and the hard work of war reporting.
I have learned that author Murphy is himself Irish and Lebanese and I can only wonder how much of him we see in Rita. Above all else, I felt the need to empathize with and to respect the characters and their cultures. The fact that we go into the lives of our characters make this a very different kind of book than other books about the Iraqi war. The human element makes it very human. What the war has done to families, individuals, careers and society is a major part of the story and cannot be overlooked. The story of Rita and Nabil defies and transcends categorization because of its intimacy and the fact that it is part of a larger epic.
“Correspondents” acknowledges and embraces the universality of the experience in Nabil, a young Iraqi interpreter who finds he can tamp down his sexuality for only so long before a drastic choice must be made. Murphy says that he wanted to write a novel that somehow wove together a contemporary American Arab-American family like his own with an Iraqi family during the American invasion of Iraq. He, himself, was obsessed with how the U.S., could have just gone into Iraq with really zero justification and destroyed an entire country and millions of lives, including some American lives, and then walked away from it all before it was even over. It became tragic and a fiasco of this country’s own making. Murphy also wanted to understand how an American family, like his, can in the course of 100 years come from a place like the Middle East (or Asia or Latin America) and basically shed the language and most of the culture over just three generations and become totally and hopelessly American with very little sense of belonging to other parts of the world. The book gives us the American occupation of Iraq as something that got worse year after year between 2003 and about 2007 and became an increasingly tense and horrifying nightmare, in a city that may have been slowly suffocating under Saddam but certainly was not in a state of total lawlessness and chaos. There was pleasure in daily family and social life, just as there is here until we robbed Iraqis of that and “allowed their lives to become a living hell.”
Here is a novel that starts out a traditional story about American immigration and then suddenly we are in another country with another family. Eventually these two worlds unravel at the same time. Prepare yourself for a novel you will not soon forget but then you will not want to.