Book Review: Death is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa

Death is Hard Work – Khaled Khalifa (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019)

When Bolbol’s father dies his final request is to be buried with his sister in their hometown. The town is located a couple of hours drive away from where Bolbol lives (and where his father died). No big deal, right? Except what if the town where Bolbol lives is Damascus? What if the country is Syria in 2016?

Bolbol enlists the help of his brother Hussein and his sister Fatima and in Hussein’s minibus they wrap up their father’s body and attempt to take it to the town of Anabiya. This town sits on the other side of the civil war, a town of rebels, and there are countless checkpoints and dangers to pass through on their way. Added to this is the complication of family and the fact that the siblings are mostly estranged, having not spoken in years, and each is estranged in their own way from their recently deceased father. Khalifa takes every road trip trope you could think of and turns it on its head while deftly showing the reader both what Syria is like currently and what it was like just a few years ago.

Death is Hard Work was hard to read. Both in style and in content. Death is a heavy feature of the book. More than once Khalifa draws our attention to the fact that Abdel Latifa’s (Bolbol’s father) death from old age is abnormal in a country where hundreds are dying each day. There are bodies everywhere and after years of violence, the population is no longer shocked by it. At the same time, Bolbol and his siblings are up close and personal with the corpse of their father, which is quickly beginning to decompose as their journey takes longer than expected. It’s gruesome and Khalifa forces you to look at it.

The book was not a fast read for me. There are spurts of action but a lot of it is about the frustration of powerlessness. The characters spend hours at checkpoints, held against their will, not knowing what’s happening. They spend hours in chaotic traffic, refusing or not knowing how to speak to one another. There is not much dialogue and there is a lot of introspection. Most of the point of view comes from Bolbol but there is some from Hussein and we get fairly deep into each of the brothers’ histories, as well as their father’s. We see almost nothing from Fatima and she’s largely a two dimensional character, as are all of the women portrayed in the book. They are beautiful and desirable and mysterious but none of them feel real. While I tend to think this is a weakness on Khalifa’s part, it’s possible this is also a depiction of the divide between the sexes in this society. Maybe it’s both?

While I struggled with parts of the novel, I did appreciate the voice and content, distinct from so much of what we read in Western fiction. Novels can be such powerful ways to enter into a life entirely different from our own and I think this is accomplished in Death is Hard Work. It’s even more important because this violence and tragedy is still ongoing.

This book was translated from the Arabic by Leri Price.

11 thoughts on “Book Review: Death is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa”

    1. You know, I didn’t make that connection because they are so tonally different (and it’s been a long time since I read As I Lay Dying) but you’re right that there are a lot of similarities. The setting is so different and the political issues Khalifa focuses on but it would be interesting to know if he was influenced by Faulkner at all.

    2. Really interesting. Plus so much of Faulkner is haunted by Southern politics after the Civil War, although he doesn’t write very explicitly about it. I’d love to know too!

    1. Thanks! I gather he’s fairly well known in Syria but only his last three books have been translated into English.

  1. Hmmm sounds like this book is hard work too! (see what I did there?) In all seriousness, that shallow depiction of the women would irritate me, but at the same time, it’s important to read these different voices and viewpoints, especially because it may not suit my western sensibilities. Where did you first hear of this book?

    1. I don’t want to entirely blame it on culture since I know Syrian and Middle Eastern men who are much more thoughtful of women than the characters in this novel, yet I can’t help but imagine that cultural difference is what I notice in the novel. But I’ve noticed this from male authors writing in English too where they just kind of ignore the female perspective completely and the female characters only exist to reflect the men. The character of the sister could have been left out entirely and the book would be exactly the same. And the two other female characters are so similar that it makes them feel like characters rather than real people.

      I heard about it from the CBC. A list of books from around the world to read in 2019, or something like that.

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