The Dark Side of Love – Rafik Schami

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 Shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2010

Translated from the German by Anthea Bell

The Dark Side of Love is epic in every sense of the word.

  • The 850 pages are imposing.
  • The writing quality surpasses the ordinary.
  • The narrative encompasses an impressive period of time, following three generations as political change forces their lives in different directions.
  • There is a hero who battles against adversity, capturing your heart.

The Dark Side of Love is set in Syria and follows two feuding families from 1907 through to 1970. The central characters are Rana and Farid, a couple who fall in love, but are unable to be together due to the generations of hatred between their rival clans.

The gulf between the Mushtak and Shanin families was deep. Later, no one could say just how their hostility had begun, but even the children of both families were convinced that they would sooner make friends with the devil than one of the enemy clan.

The first 300 pages of this book were slow going. New characters seemed to be introduced on each page and I found it almost impossible to keep track of who everyone was. In the end I gave up trying to work it out and approached each chapter as if it were a short story. This worked really well and I found myself treated to numerous Syrian myths and legends. I found the details of their lives fascinating and so although I couldn’t tell you who half the people were I never lost interest in the book. It took me over two months to read the first 400 pages, but I’m pleased that I took the time to absorb their world as I think it made the second half of the book even better.

At the centre of the book the narrative became more conventional and the focus shifted to Farid. This increased the pace of the book and I managed to complete the second half in just two weeks. Farid finds himself in many terrible situations, both political and personal, but the lengths that he goes to to try to be with Rana are heartbreaking. Their love was so strong and realistic that this has become one of my favourite romances.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a happy book though – there is a lot of violence and suffering. I’d describe it as a cross between A Fine Balance and Palace Walk. The complex political and religious situations in Syria are woven with more personal stories of families trying to arrange favourable marriages for their children or find appropriate jobs. I learnt so much from reading this book, but I’m going to re-read it as I’m sure that would reveal many more layers.

This isn’t an easy read, but it is well worth the effort. I think it is a literary masterpiece and that everyone interested in Middle Eastern literature should ensure they read it.

Highly recommended. 


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27 Comments

  1. JoV says:

    Jackie, Jackie, Jackie!! I didn’t know you are reading this one. Your review made me want to reach out from my computer and give you a hug!!! This is wonderful, I saw this at the Bristol airport when I was flying off to Budapest last 22 October, read the blurb and I thought what a intriguing story setting and looks like one that I’d love to read, esp it is Middle Eastern.

    I am super glad you loved it, I’m going to hunt the book down. ;)

    1. Jackie says:

      Jo, ((HUGS)) Thank you!

      The blurb is actually quite misleading as it makes it out to be a murder mystery – which it isn’t really (the murder takes up about 30 pages of this 850+ pages book) It is an intriguing story though, especially if you have an interest in the Middle East. I hope that you can track down a copy and enjoy it as much as I did.

  2. JoAnn says:

    I loved both A Fine Balance and Palace Walk, so this needs to go on my list. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Jackie!

    1. Jackie says:

      JoAnn, A Fine Balance is my favourite book and this is the first book that I’ve been able to compare it to – very high praise from me :-)

      It is interesting that this book and Palace Walk both have the same slow first halves. I’m sure that if you made it through the slow section of Palace Walk then this book is for you too. Enjoy!

  3. There are basically 3 categories of great book bloggers for me:

    1. Those who read things you aren’t normally interested in but write in an engaging enough way to make up for it;
    2. Those who read the things you have read and make you think about them differently;
    3. Those who read things you want to read – some you’ve heard of, but most you haven’t.

    You are, for me, a major #3. Thanks for always bringing something new and exciting to my attention – and for growing my imaginary TBR pile to unmanageable heights. This one sounds like a must-read.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sara, Thank you so much for the kind words. It is great to know that I’m doing something useful. I hope that you enjoy this one as much as I did.

  4. Amy says:

    Yay, a book that you loved! This book sounds really great, and I really want to pick it up… but wow it’s so long!

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, I don’t give many books the rare 5 star award – it is a rare and beautiful thing ;-)

      The Dark Side of Love is very long and requires a lot of effort, but I recommend reading small sections each day. It becomes a little daily treat and I will miss reading it.

  5. Steph says:

    This sounds really interesting… even though you compare it two books I’ve never read! I have to admit that my knowledge of Middle Eastern literature is embarrassingly bad, so this might be a good way to get acquainted with it. Nothing like diving in head first! ;)

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, I’m not sure this is the best place to start Middle Eastern literature – it is so long and the politics are quite complicated. I’m not sure where the best place to start is, but if you are feeling brave and dedicated then perhaps jumping in wouldn’t be a bad thing? Good luck!

      I do highly recommend that you read A Fine Balance very soon – it is the best book in the world :-)

  6. litlove says:

    It’s on my Christmas wish list. I was intrigued the first time you mentioned it and I’m really hoping I’ll get to read it in 2011!

    1. Jackie says:

      litlove, I hope that Santa is good to you and that you enjoy reading this in 2011. :-)

  7. Brenna says:

    This sounds great but quite intimidating!

    1. Jackie says:

      Brenna, I’m really pleased that you like the sound of it.

  8. 850 pages! The book sounds good and the size fascinates me (large books all do). :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Sheila, i love it when people are enthusiastic about long books!

  9. Although overwhelming epic, it sounds intriguing — I love a long and involved tale and this one sounds right up my alley right about now! Thanks for adding yet another book to my wish list!! :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Coffee and a Book Chick, I’m a big fan of long, complex plots too. I hope that you enjoy it if you decide to read it.

  10. This book sounds really tempting! I was also intrigued by the translator’s familiar-sounding name–is she by any chance the same Anthea Bell who translates the Asterix series? If so, I’m doubly sold!

    1. Jackie says:

      Niranjana, I didn’t realise that she translated Asterix, but I’ve just looked her up and I think it is the same person. I was amazed at the range of books and languages that she translates into English. I think I’ll be keeping an eye out for her other translated books in future.

  11. Dan Holloway says:

    I very much look forward to this

    1. Jackie says:

      Dan, i’m sure that you’ll enjoy it :-)

  12. This book sounds wonderful. I lived in Israel for 2 years so I am fascinated with the Middle East. I must admit that I have picked this book up on many an occasion and put it down again due to being daunted. But when you said it was one of your favourite romances I knew I have to get it.

    1. Jackie says:

      The Book Whisperer, I didn’t realise that you’d lived in Israel – you are always surprising me :-)

      I know exactly why this book would be daunting, but I’m sure that you’ll enjoy it. Good luck with it!

  13. jancy kuriakose says:

    I haven’t read this book yet but the paperback sounds like this book is similar to romeo and juliet

    1. Jackie says:

      Jancy, Yes. The basic storyline has a lot of similarities to Romeo and Juliet. :-)

  14. Soul Muser says:

    Wow! I am always keenly interested in Middle Eastern literature. I do have a rather sad habit of abandoning a book if it doesn’t grip me in the first 100 pages – and here you say the first 300 is slow going. :-( But I trust your word – let me hunt this up somewhere. Thanks for the review!

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