Review of Once in a Promised Land by Laila Halaby
Once in a Promised Land
by Laila Halaby
This book was intriguing at first. Halaby creates two rich characters, Jassim and Salwa Haddad, whose personal lives become much more complicated post-9/11. Jassim, comfortably encapsulated in his routine, accidentally hits a boy with his car, killing the boy and pushing Jassim's life off course. He grows distant from his wife. Salwa, meanwhile, suffers a miscarriage after intentionally "accidentally" getting pregnant and conducts a brief, confused affair with a much younger coworker. As their lives spiral out of control, their odd behaviour fuels the mounting suspicions of misguided patriots.
I enjoyed my stay in Jassim's and Salwa's minds, exploring their reactions to the tragedies that befall them and how they deal with the consequences of their own decisions. Jassim craves order and clings to the familiar. Salwa, on the other hand, has an unfulfilled need for passion that leads her astray at the nadir of her marriage. Both struggle with how much they have adapted to American culture, how much of their heritage they have sublimated in favour of buying into the American dreams of "freedom" and "peace."
The first two thirds of this book drew me in and didn't let me go. The unfolding family drama was compelling; Halaby takes her two characters, already at odds with their environment, and destroys any hope of finding a safe zone in which they can live happy lives. I was utterly enthralled and wanted to see how it would turn out.
Unfortunately, what began as a five-star book soon became more ponderous and less enjoyable. The portions involving Salwa's affair took on an American Beauty-like atmosphere. They felt inexorable and far too dark for my taste. Halaby describes Salwa's mixed reluctance and eagerness perfectly; I understand what she was trying to communicate in these scenes. But I just couldn't enjoy it. It felt wrong. The beginning of the affair may have been natural, but thereafter it felt artificial, plot-driven. The same goes for the relationship Jassim begins to develop with another woman (who feels entirely like a redundant character, much like the dark shadow cast by Salwa's ineffective ex-boyfriend).
Parts of Once in a Promised Land were wonderful and enchanting. At times, I do feel immersed in another culture, and Halaby shows me the lonelier aspects of living in a country that can seem foreign and familiar at the same time. Ultimately, the book couldn't sustain that sense of wonder.