Samar Yazbek, Syrian author of The Crossing, turns to fiction to explore the futility and barbarity of war. Planet of Clay is narrated by Rima, a mute girl from Damascus who, afflicted by the desire to walk wherever her feet take her, is tied to her mother’s wrist. She loses herself in books, drawing and the secret planets in her head.
During the early unrest, her mother is shot dead at a checkpoint. Rima is injured and taken to a military hospital; she describes in stark prose her fellow patients who, we realise, are the brutalised victims of state torture. Rima’s brother rescues her, but with the spread of the conflict their world shrinks. They seek safety in Ghouta, where Rima’s brother delivers her into the care of another fighter. As the bombs fall, her flights of fantasy become a means of survival. In one memorable passage, she wakes up after a chemical weapon attack to find herself surrounded by dead children and women in hijabs being sprinkled with water. The women die because the gases have penetrated their clothing and the men claim it is haram to disrobe them.
The atrocities and scenes of devastation that Yazbek witnessed in The Crossing were so overwhelming she described them as “closer to fiction than reality”. She met numerous women and children who, like Rima, had survived the most appalling carnage. Yazbek knows the transformative power of imagination, how a character-driven story remains with the reader longer than reportage and that daily horror, filtered through the lens of fiction, is more palatable and relatable.
Her narrative style – a repetitive stream of consciousness in a supple translation by Leri Price – may divide readers. Rima’s voice is deliberately naive: she circles around her subjects and often doesn’t finish telling us one story before starting another. However, Yazbek’s compassionate novel boldly conveys the circularity of a besieged people, where one day bleeds into the next, and Rima is a poignant emblem for Syria’s women who, confined by war, cannot move and speak freely.