In her YA novel A Land of Permanent Goodbyes, Atia Abawi sheds light on the plight of Syrian refugees and the horrors faced by people displaced by war and violence. It’s a serious and heartbreaking story about Tareq, a teenage boy from Syria, who is forced to leave his country after his home is destroyed in a bombing. With his father and younger sister, he journeys as a refugee through Syria, Turkey and Greece, facing unfathomable loss along the way.
This book delves into devastating and timely material. Unfortunately, the execution is poor. Tareq’s story on its own is compelling. The scenes told from his point of view are what kept me reading. But Abawi frames the book with the use of an omniscient narrator, “Destiny”. Destiny often cuts in with long passages of exposition about war, violence, and human nature throughout history. These passages are vague and didactic, and felt way too heavy-handed. Every time Destiny’s narration came back in, it pulled me right out of the story.
Specificity is at the heart of good fiction. Specificity brings the unknown close; it crystallizes what is hazy; it gives heft and weight to experiences that may be far away from our own lives. Specificity is what makes fiction feel real and immediate. It is the details of a story and the particulars of a character that offer readers a door into lives they have not, themselves, lived. Specificity, in my opinion, is the force in fiction that drives compassion, understanding, and empathy. Tareq’s story is one of thousands of similar refugee stories–which I guess is the point Destiny is making–but his story is also specific. I wish Abawi had allowed Tareq full ownership of this story. Tareq, I felt, could speak for himself. Abawi got in her own way by trying to tie everything together with the overarching eye of Destiny.
I also struggled with the character of Alexia–a young American volunteer working at the refugee camp in Greence where Tareq arrives after fleeing Turkey. Alexia is naive and sheltered when she arrives in Greece on vacation, and decides to stay on as a volunteer. There are several chapters told from her point of view, but she never felt like a full character. She seemed only to represent something–the good white girl, the compassionate volunteer, the helper. In fact, Abawi makes several references to the Mr. Roger’s quote “look for the helpers”. Alexia herself mentions this idea to Tareq.
Alexia is broken by what she sees, and she does go through a particularly harrowing experience at the end of the book, but she seems to have no agency of her own. She doesn’t have an arc; she doesn’t struggle or grow or change. She appears static. She sometimes acts in a white-savior-ish way, but this isn’t ever addressed or explored. I struggled to get through the sections from her POV; I could not figure out what purpose they served. They certainly didn’t add any depth to the story.
To her credit, Abawi refuses to look away from the atrocities of war and the harsh realities that refugees and displaced people face at every turn. This book, at times, was harrowing to read. The best scenes, the ones firmly rooted in Tareq’s POV, were the hardest ones to read: traveling with his father through an ISIS controlled city in Syria, looking for work with his cousin in Istanbul, trying to protect his little sister on a dinghy during their crossing from Turkey to Greece. These were the moments that brought the story to life and settled under my skin.
Perhaps other readers will find the narrative structure less distracting. A Land of Permanent Goodbyes tells an urgent and important story. But I was disappointed in the overall execution of what I’d hoped would be a much more compelling read.