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I read a lot of new fiction, in large part to stay current about what kinds of titles library patrons will be requesting. So, it’s always nice when a book that I missed when it was initially released becomes one of my favorites and introduces me to an author’s body of work. I recently finished Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber, a beautiful prayer of a novel that is as much poetry as prose. Published in the same year as The Kite Runner but garnering far less attention, it is a story about many things—food, family, community, home, storytelling, and hospitality. Above all else, though, it is a story about how to love.
Sirine is a chef at a Lebanese restaurant in a Persian and Arab-American neighborhood of Los Angeles. She lives with her beloved uncle and a devoted dog, King Babar. At 39, Sirine is content to be single, but her uncle wants to see her with “someone nice and charming and all those things” (17). He narrates a fable that runs parallel to the main story about Abdelrahman Salahadin, his favorite cousin with “an incurable addiction to selling himself and faking his drowning” (15). The story is meant to comfort, guide, entertain, and inspire his beloved niece, but it also seems to go off track, contradict itself and meander slowly without a lot of direction. Sirine asks what it all means—is it a secret code?
In America you say secret code, but in Iraq, that’s just the way things are. Everything’s sort of folded up and layered just a bit more complicated. Here it’s all right out there, right on the surfaces. Everyone’s telling you exactly how they feel all the time and what they’re thinking. Trying to pin everything down. [Stories] could be about anything. Maybe about war or birth. Maybe it’s a way to talk about a journey, or to reflect on love.
Sirine’s cooking draws many immigrants into the restaurant, including Hanif, a professor of Arab-American Studies. Hanif and Sirine fall in love, but Hanif is divided. He is in exile, and while he cannot return to Iraq, he cannot live fully in the United States, either. He is between worlds:
The fact of exile is bigger than everything else in my life. Leaving my country was like—I don’t know—like part of my body was torn away. I have phantom pains from the loss of that part—I’m haunted by myself. Exile is like a dim gray room, full of sounds and shadows, but there’s nothing real or actual inside of it.
Abu-Jaber also describes Hanif’s journey—the opportunities afforded him through a predatory relationship, his guilt over leaving Iraq, his effort and inability to forget his home. It is a beautiful and heartbreaking story, but this is also a story of belief. It is about making your life a prayer and waiting expectantly through difficulties. For Sirine, cooking is an act of devotion, and it is through cooking that she loves, celebrates, and endures hardships. Her uncle reminds her: “Patience comes from strange places, from the moon and stars, from sighing and breathing, and from working and sleeping to name a few.”
If you enjoyed The Kite Runner, you should definitely give Crescent a try, but it’s appeal is broader than being a read-alike for Hosseini’s novel. Crescent stands on its own as a multi-layered story about what it means to love and live well.