Rum’s heartbreaking debut is a generational story about three Palestinian-American women struggling to find their place within their family, balancing their culture with the new pressures and freedom of America. We have three main POV charactersIsra is born and raised in Palestine, and after her arranged marriage at 17, moves to live with her husband’s family to Brooklyn. Isra dreams of finding a love like the one she’s read about in books. Deya is Isra’s oldest daughter, who dreams of going to college instead of the arranged marriage her family is pushing her towards. Fareeda is Deya’s grandmother and Isra’s mother in law, iron-fisted matriarch of the family.
This is also a story of generational trauma, and not for the faint of heart. All three generations of women face emotional and often physical abuse. Fareeda and Isra, both of whom grew up in Palestine, have experienced physical abuse their whole lives, and see their experiences as a woman’s lot in life. Deya, born and raised in Brooklyn (though incredibly sheltered), has escaped most of the physical abuse, but is not able to escape the crushing burdens of being a woman in a culture that does not value her for anything more than her ability to keep a home and secure the next generation of male heirs.
The most remarkable thing about this book is the way that the author is able to hold compassion for every single character. I am not in any way saying that she condones the abuse that some characters commit, but there is an acknowledgement of the cyclical nature of trauma and abuse. “She knew that the suffering of women started in the suffering of men, that the bondages of one became the bondages of the other.” On the other hand, there are no easy outs here: “She knew she had to teach them how to love themselves, that this was the only way they had a chance at happiness. Only she didn’t see how she could when the world pressed shame into women like pillows into their faces. She wanted to save her daughters from her fate, but she couldn’t seem to find a way out.”
There is crushing loneliness here, and isolation; bitterness and helplessness. But there is also hope. As Deya learns more about her family, the experiences of previous generations, she becomes more determined to find her voice, and to find a new way to be a woman.