The Night Counter
If Scheherazade, the famous narrator of 1001 Nights, gained immortality beyond the immortality of her words, how do you imagine she would spend her time? In her debut novel, THE NIGHT COUNTER, Alia Yunis writes that she would spend her time collecting more stories.
In this latest reimagining of Scheherazade, she is extracting 1,001 stories from Fatima Abdullah, an aging Lebanese woman living in Los Angeles with her grandson, Amir. Fatima is convinced she has just days to live, and she has a lot to accomplish in that time. She must decide which of her children will inherit the family home back in Lebanon, she must find a wife for Amir (who happens to be gay), she must teach her pregnant teenage great-granddaughter to read the Qur’an in Arabic, and she must keep Scheherazade happy with her stories of her family, including life with her two husbands, Marwan and Ibrahim, and their 10 children.
Fatima arrived in Michigan as a young bride. With no English she relied on her kind-hearted husband Marwan, who had been in the US for many years working at the Ford Motor Company. Tragically, after Fatima is finally getting comfortable in her new home and awaiting the birth of her first child, Marwan dies. Before Laila is born she marries Marwan’s close friend Ibrahim, a man who makes her laugh. Ibrahim is a quiet and increasingly distant partner. Still, he raises Laila as his own, and he and Fatima have nine more children.
Decades later the Arab and Muslim communities of the US have grown larger, and Fatima’s 10 children and many grandchildren are grown and scattered across the country (and even back in the Middle East). As she senses death approaching, the quirky yet traditional Fatima begins to plan for her family’s future without her.
There are several sub-stories in the book. Readers meet all of Fatima’s children and grandchildren, and they each get their own story as Scheherazade travels to each of them on her flying carpet. There are several mysteries in these pages as well: Why did Fatima recently divorce Ibrahim and move to California? Why are two shady figures and the FBI spying on the family? Is Scheherazade a figment of Fatima’s imagination, or really the ghost of the legendary storyteller?
THE NIGHT COUNTER is sweet and charming and often quite funny, yet it packs an emotional punch at the end. Yunis mostly manages to keep track of her many characters and maintain the primacy of Fatima’s story. But sometimes it feels like there is too much going on, and the story becomes cluttered. Still, Yunis, like Scheherazade, is a fantastic guide, and the book overall is a good one.
Fatima’s family is intelligent and flawed, loving and sad, fearful and hopeful all at once. Though much of what they deal with is particular to immigrants and minority cultures, they are also just trying to find acceptance, happiness, success and unconditional love in the face of ordinary challenges. Family, love and loss, as well as national, ethnic and religious identity and assimilation, are the major themes here. THE NIGHT COUNTER is a lovely take on family drama and a wonderful illumination of the importance of storytelling.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 13, 2011
The Night Counter
- Publication Date: July 13, 2010
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 384 pages
- Publisher: Broadway
- ISBN-10: 0307453634
- ISBN-13: 9780307453631