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A Pure Heart: A Novel by Rajia Hassib — book review

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A Pure Heart’s portrayal of sisterhood is tepid at best.
The needlessly expository narration, the clichéd character dynamics, and the meandering storyline didn’t really grab me at all.

This novel reminded me a lot of The Other Americans and many other titles that seemed aimed at an American audience…so we have these two sisters who don’t get along: one is usually very religious and perceived by the others as conservative; the other one is usually pursuing some sort of academic study, she is thought as ‘unconventional’, she is far more spirited/animated than her sister, and she usually ends up falling in love or marring an American guy.

Maybe I could have looked past the predictability of the story if said story had been told in an engaging or emotionally charged manner…but that wasn’t the case. Here we have very flat storytelling, which provides very little nuance, and attempts to create atmosphere by describing each movement its various characters make (they sit up, they walk here, they walk there, they move their hands, the use their hands to lift objects, their legs move…) and resulting in a slog of a narrative.
There is this one scene in which perhaps the author wanted to juxtapose the tension between a group characters by over-describing all of their actions during their dinner together:
➜ “Rose pulled her hand back. She got up to carry the turkey to the countertop and, after washing her hands, started pulling pieces of meat off its carcass.
➜ “Ingrid walked up to the cabinet, stretched to reach the box of Ziploc bags.
➜ “Ingrid asked, taking the plates from Mark and rinsing them before putting them in the dishwasher.
➜ “Rose glanced at Mark, who was slowly wiping the table, now cleared of plates, with a wet washcloth, his hand going from side to side, again and again, […] Mark wiped the table with a dry cloth, now rubbing it in spots, scraping at it with his thumbnail, making sure every crumb was gone, every inch was glistening,”.

Soon I was tired of reading phrases such as these:
➜ “She did not lift her eyes from her noodles, stabbing them with the fork, turning it to wrap them around its prongs.
➜ “she opened the fridge, pulled out a cup of fruit yogurt, and ate it standing by the window.

The non-linearity of the story also served very little purpose. Looking at past events didn’t really provide us with a more in-depth portrayal of the various characters, but rather it made their shallow characterisation all the more glaring. We have the American nice-ish husband who is bland and in spite of his fixation on Egypt he will never quite understand his wife or her country; his douchebag male friend who is the stereotype of the inconsiderate bro-dude American; the eccentric Polish landlady…
The story would have benefited from having a narrower scope, giving us an insight into the psychology of the two sisters. This story could have easily been told in a more conventionally linear timeline, giving us time to familiarise ourselves with the two sisters, to see their bond shift and change over the course of their youth.

The last part of book includes the story of a character that should have either been the entire focus of this narrative or merely a ‘backstage’ figure…perhaps the author should have trusted her readers more as she didn’t quite need to cram in a hurried narrative of a hard-working young man who ends up doing an unthinkable act of violence after he experiences hardship after hardship.
What could have been an interesting story of sisterhood and belonging ended up becoming a rather trite, and occasionally tacky, narrative that strives to be aesthetic and topical…

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 ½ stars 

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