Seen through the eyes of a strong-willed and perceptive young girl, Naphtalene beautifully captures the atmosphere of Baghdad in the 1940s and 1950s. Through her rich and lyrical descriptions, Alia Mamdouh vividly recreates a city of public steam baths, roadside butchers, and childhood games played in the same streets where political demonstrations against British colonialism are beginning to take place.
At the heart of the novel is nine-year-old Huda, a girl whose fiery, defiant nature contrasts sharply with her own inherent powerlessness. Both childishly innocent and acutely perceptive, Huda observes the complex web of relationships in her family. Her father, a bullying police officer who works as a prison guard, treats his two children with vacillating tenderness and brutality, and drives her desperately ill Syrian mother from the house after he takes a second wife. One aunt waits in vain for a man to marry her, while another engages in a sexual relationship with a woman, but is forced to hide it. Huda must struggle to form her identity amidst this world of unfulfilled women, of yearnings, frustrations, and small tragedies.
Through Mamdouh's strikingly inventive use of language, Huda's stream-of-consciousness narrative expands to take in the life not only of a young girl and her family, but of her street, her neighborhood, and her country. Alia Mamdouh, winner of the Naguib Mahfouz Award in Arabic Literature, is a journalist, essayist and novelist living in exile in Paris. Long banned from publishing in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, she is the author of essays, short stories, and four novels, of which Naphtalene is the most widely acclaimed and translated.
"Describes in poetic, incantatory language the city's domestic life . . . [and] around this private world swirl the politics of the 1950s in Iraq."
"Mamdouh . . . employs shifts of narrative perspective and a sophisticated technique in this affectionate but critical dissection of her culture. . . . [Naptalene] is a pungent, episodic glimpse of childhood in a patriarchal society . . . often intense and lyrical."
"Mamdouh's prose is at once lush and refreshingly earthy . . . she anchors her tale with a spirited and highly sympathetic narrator coming of age in a Baghdad long gone."
"The first novel by an Iraqi woman to be published in English in the United States . . . is a hallucinatory incantation, a fevered dream and nightmare and, finally, a lyrical evocation of a place disappeared."
"Ferocious, visceral descriptions . . . give a powerful sense not only of Huda's world but also of the way we make and understand memories."
"The story of Huda, a young girl growing up in Baghdad during the 1940s and 1950s . . . leaves an indelible impression. Her world is rich with family and neighbors and she notes all of their subtle interactions and secrets."
"Beautifully evokes the sounds and scents of old Baghdad, as in her descriptions of Friday night prayers: stained tiles and worshipers with sweat-glistened faces, bare feet and non-stop supplications, incense and perfumes."
“Naphtalene sings life at its most intense . . . Alia Mamdouh’s stunning gesture is to have turned over the keys of the narrative to the violent sensitivities and superior intelligence of childhood. Naphtalene is an enchantment bordering on myth. . . . A marriage of the primordial and of modernity, of fury and of love.”
“In the long lost Baghdad of childhood, where love and subversion and respect are melted in a pot of poetry and illusion, the life of a family and their neighbors evolves around the female energy moving between a memorable grandmother and her rule-breaking granddaughter. Naphtalene is a beautiful novel that will help preserve in our hearts the memory of a city systematically being destroyed under our very eyes.”
"Couldn't be more timely . . .[the novel] subjects one Baghdad neighborhood to the scrutiny of a child who observes its deepest divisions and secrets, providing a profoundly human portrayal of the city that makes it more real, in many ways, than a view through a plasma TV ever could."
“Unlocks a world of secrets and sorrows, rooted in a specific place and intertwined with memory.”
“Sinuous, lyrical, and elliptical, this lovely novel is suffused with passion and public drama.”