Some remarkable novels translated into English in the last few years have at their core a passionate platonic relationship between two women. I am thinking of Elena Ferrante’s “Neapolitan Quartet” and Magda Szabo’s The Door. The subject of female experience and the imperative, as Ferrante expresses it, “to delve truthfully into the darkest depths” of that experience, contribute to the excellence of this work. What differentiates these novels from one of their great ancestors—Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook—is that the pairs of women at the heart of Ferrante and Szabo’s books are almost fatalistically obsessed with one another. In this way Elena and Lila, and Magda and Emerence, are like pairs of lovers. These are relationships as rooted in fascination, betrayal and shifting power, as steeped in competition, torment, mystery and death, as the relationship between Vronsky and Anna Karenina.
Hope Has Two Daughters extends these coordinates onto the experience of Gen Xer and millennial women from the Levant. This second novel by activist Monia Mazigh tells the story of two pairs of friends. Set in Tunisia and told in the alternating voices of the book’s two protagonists—Nadia and her Canadian-born daughter, Lila—it chronicles two revolutions: the Bread Riots of 1984 and the start of the Arab Spring of 2010. Each narrator has an intimate who partakes in her political awakening: Nadia, Neila; and Lila, Donia. These relationships have an inbuilt poignancy rooted in abandonment. Nadia will leave Neila in Tunisia to emigrate to Canada, and Lila only meets Donia for the first time on a trip that will last a few months. As in Ferrante’s “Quartet,” there is a melancholy distinction between “those who leave and those who stay,” from which Mazigh’s novel draws much of its emotional power.
While there is some crossing over between the two narratives in that Lila stays with Neila when she visits Tunisia to learn Arabic and communicates with her now Ottawa-based mother over phone and email, for the most part they proceed as parallels, producing what feels uncannily like historical reincarnation. In both 1984 and 2010, the proud, abused citizenry of Tunisia’s working class Ettadamoun Township—where “[t]he girls work as prostitutes or as supermarket cashiers or textile workers” and “[t]he boys end up as peddlers or drug dealers”—unleash their rage against austerity programs and governmental corruption in violent demonstrations. Both Nadia and Lila, middle-class high school students, see through the cracking walls of their sheltered worlds, especially when their Ettadamoun friends, Mounir in 1984 and Jamal in 2010, are taken away in the middle of the night by police. Though at first I struggled with the sameness of Nadia and Lila’s voices, I soon came to feel that this historical doubling was a structural achievement. When read next to each other, these characters begin to seem like incarnations of a newly woken type. This creates a powerful if pinched feeling of deterministic constraint, and offers a reminder that under adverse circumstances our differences tend to be flattened into likeness.
The compulsion to be like “everybody else” is the real villain of the novel. The day Nadia’s lyceé is overcome by rioters is the day, she says, when “I understood Mother’s hypocrisy. She knew we weren’t rich, but she was determined to keep up appearances at all costs, to make it seem as though we were just like everybody else. But who was this ‘everybody else’? Weren’t they all just like us?”
“Dignity, equality, justice,” she thinks, “all that was for intellectuals, the philosophers, the crazies.” What distinguishes Nadia, Neila, Lila and Donia from “everybody else” is that they are willing to look past class differences in order to identify with a true revolutionary project.
Mazigh is clear that these are exceptional young women. Of all the females in Tunisia, only these four, it seems, are more concerned with politics than with “leather jackets, moccasins, Burlington socks, and miniskirts.” More than corrupt officials and police, who along with their atrocities remain largely invisible, it is mascaraed girls with sex lives and “hair nicely arranged,” who in both 1984 and 2010, according to Nadia and Donia, are “big zeroes”: “big, fat stinking zero[es].” Unfortunately, the stark distinction Mazigh draws between women with or without intelligence and a moral valence—between women who “weren’t living on the same planet”—comes to seem artificial and overwrought. This seems especially true at one of the novel’s climaxes, when Nadia accuses a classmate from the other side of the political spectrum of flirting with a teacher for grades—a minor event the novel raises to epic proportions. (For comparison: the novel treats Nadia’s expulsion from school for this misdemeanor as though it is on par with her friend Mounir’s seven-year incarceration for his participation in the riots). I’m not saying Mazigh is wrong to critique people who keep themselves willfully ignorant of politics, but I do think she should have done more to closely examine their impulses: Selfishness, cowardice, satisfaction at the suffering of others, the willful abdication of responsibility, which is also a kind of masochism; on the revolutionary side, desire to please a new authority—these are those “darkest depths” Mazigh’s narrators might have examined in the “big zeroes” and themselves. It is hard to take seriously Nadia’s revolutionary voice when it treats an entire class of people as an undistinguished mass, while congratulating itself for being the lone rebel who breaks with caste.
The tone is urgent and the sentences fast and propulsive, yet there is a strange lack of passion in Mazigh’s novel. What makes Ferrante’s and Szabo’s works so dynamic is that much of Elena’s and Magda’s narration is occupied with Lila and Emerence. Mazigh’s speakers are not so occupied. Rather than contemplating Neila and Donia with detailed attention, and being constantly changed by this contemplation, Nadia and Lila are most frequently occupied with themselves. As a result, their urgency cannot find a place to land. There is little impregnable territory in an Other for the narrative to generate energy and expand.
Then again, why shouldn’t Nadia and Lila be self-obsessed? They’re eighteen. Still, while the narration is intimate and interior, I’d have liked to see a more scrutinizing Nadia and Lila look back on themselves, offering new layers of specificity and insight. At the end, when Nadia joins Lila in Tunisia and the two parallel narratives converge, the novel reaches its strongest point because there is such a doubling of perspective and action: Lila observing Nadia. In my favourite scene, when Nadia kisses the face and hands of her estranged mother who may or may not have forgiven her for breaking with convention, we are finally able to look out—through Lila and past her—at the complex and mysterious drama of another life.
Arachnide | 280 pages | $22.95 | paper | ISBN# 9781487001803