CORRESPONDENTS is a novel about Iraq. It is not a political novel, or one about religion, or about American power and the responsibility that goes with it, but a novel about the trauma caused by unbearable loss: the loss of people and, at one remove, the loss of an entire country. It deals with bereavement, a common human experience, but one that is not easy to write about.
Rita Khoury, who is of mixed Lebanese and Irish descent from the Merrimack Valley in Massachusetts, is a war reporter, working in Baghdad, with Nabil and his cousin Asmaa, who act as her translators and assistants. The first section of the book deals with Rita’s forebears and her family life; then we see Nabil and Asmaa at home in Baghdad before the invasion. These scenes establish the normality of life, before catastrophe strikes; the Merrimack Valley scenes seem a little self-indulgent, but, as the story develops, they provide the balance that it needs.
In the central section, the author truly unfolds a tale of horror, but he does so with immense skill. The terror of Iraq’s descent into chaos is a difficult subject, almost too big for art, too hard to make sense of, but he more than manages. The Iraqi scenes are breathtaking, heartbreaking, and brilliant. Then the novel returns to something like a normal setting, dealing with Rita’s reinsertion into American life, and Nabil’s flight to the West, though there is more suffering to come. We end with a very nuanced message that life can continue, but will always be in the shadow of the past.
Political aspects of the war in Iraq are touched on, but it is not why the war happened, but what the war has done, that is his subject. In the Syrian scenes, after Nabil leaves Iraq, we realise that disaster will overtake other societies as well. There are few permanent refuges left in the world. At several junctures, characters express their rejection of religion. Murphy nods towards the confessional differences that divide Iraq and the Middle East, but there is no analysis of how religion makes its impact on society and how, if at all, Iraq, was a religious conflict.
Grief rather than faith, or the lack of it, is Murphy’s subject, and he is wise to steer away from didacticism. He does not aim to explain, but to show, and in showing to make us feel. This is a brilliant book about what the human heart can suffer.
Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is a Roman Catholic priest, doctor of moral theology, and consulting editor of The Catholic Herald.
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