Somebody Loves You by Mona Arshi | And Other Stories, USA | November 16, 2021
Reviewer: PARDEEP TOOR
The violence in a reader’s imagination can be worse than what’s printed on a page. Mona Arshi relies on this element of a reader’s psychology in a devastating exploration of sisterhood, coming of age, immigration, mental health, and motherhood in her debut novel, Somebody Loves You.
The novel centers on Ruby, a teenager who stops speaking and becomes a self-proclaimed “expert in the art of solitude and quietness.” Ruby and her older sister, Rania, are navigating adolescence without their mother after she suffers a mental breakdown. The sisters are surrounded by threats of violence and manipulation. Evangelical teachers try to convert and transform Ruby’s muteness, other academic figures lurk as perverts, kids at school are harsh to each other in the repeating ‘Playgrounds’ chapters, a neighbor passes away in their garden pond, the neighbor’s son is a predator, and their mother inflicts self-harm. In the absence of parental guidance, Ruby and Rania are immersed in cruelty which inevitably compromises their innocence with trauma.
Arshi’s attention to each sentence allows us to appreciate her language and style even during the book’s darkest moments. She withholds details, giving us the agony of imagining the worst. For example, regarding the girls’ mother: “. . . she places her hand deep into a pocket and out comes a pair of scissors . . . there’s blood on her hands . . .” Then, Rania’s bout with violence is initially described as: “. . . forty-five minutes long, as long as a driving lesson.” This absence of specificity results in an immersive and terrifying experience in which the reader’s imagination becomes as complicit in the violence as the characters on the page. What is not said becomes the reader’s nightmare.
The narrative’s modular structure and bare style stand out. The succinct and concise chapters are packed with spare sentences thorough in their characterizations. For example, Ruby reveals self-awareness about her mute state, noting that her mother speaks with her hands while describing Rania as a “talker” and a “natural blagger,” which makes her a “relatable human being.” The maternal absence and the ever-present threat of violence together evoke a comparison to Avni Doshi’s recently published debut, Burnt Sugar. Despite the difference in the narrator’s ages—Ruby being a child here, Antara a middle-aged adult in Burnt Sugar—both their mothers inspire uncertainty and difficulties in their lives. In both novels, daughters have been traumatized by their respective mothers and are anxiously anticipating their psychological and physical returns.
Ruby’s narration has a youthful innocence. She recognizes threats in the adult world with a mature perspective but only partially absorbs their consequences from Rania. Ruby smells wine on her sister’s breath as an “intoxicating mix of overripe blackberries and blood” and concludes that’s what “sex must smell like.” When Rania discusses dating, Ruby decides to “. . . carry a little knife in a leather sheath in [her] boots or shoes. Apparently, some Taiwanese women order the knives small enough to slide them into their vagina.” These serious yet comically tender moments between the sisters illuminate their unpreparedness for emerging adulthood and re-emphasize the teenage point of view as we are reacquainted with attraction, sex, and violence through their eyes.
There’s a fixation on the natural world and order in the animal and plant kingdoms. The girls’ mother is obsessed with her ‘Garden’, a chapter title that repeats five times throughout the novel. The references to foxes, kittens, pigeons, falcons, leopards, pythons, hawks, and rattlesnakes serve as parallels to the events in Ruby’s mute life and force us to ask: what is natural? Does normal exist? Most importantly, concerning her desire to reunite with her mother after her mental episode, Ruby learns that “not all mothers in the animal kingdom are good.”
The playfulness with language—”garden’s asleep for winter;” “stubborn as a coconut, hairy as a coconut, unmarried as a coconut;” “Something on the shelf of my mother’s heart died when she came to England”—and attention to detail catalyzes a desire to carefully read each sentence while simultaneous craving for the next one. Experimental chapters wrench deeper meaning in unexpected ways. At one point, Ruby disrupts the fourth wall and speaks directly into the proverbial authorial camera to her mother: “They will not let me see you. I think it’s because they detect in my scent my desperation—I try to hide it, but animal fear clings to me . . . Perhaps you do not want to see me?” By doing so, Ruby is pleading for help, transforming us from naïve readers into the absent mother who failed her daughters.
Somebody Loves You is a rich and challenging novel that will inspire lovers of language craft at the sentence level. It deserves multiple readings to truly appreciate Arshi’s selective descriptions and the complexities layered with uncluttered syntax. The violence is both psychological and real. The delicate prose increases our immersion into the deeper meanings of these fictional horrors and expands the imagined possibilities of cruelty in the real world. How can something so brutal be such a pleasure to read? That’s one of many questions left to grapple with after reading this disturbing, yet delightful debut novel.
Pardeep Toor’s writing has appeared in the Best Debut Short Stories 2021: The PEN America Dau Prize, Catapult, Electric Literature, Midwest Review, Great River Review, and is forthcoming in the Southern Humanities Review. Follow @pardeeptoor.
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