Had your fill of trashy novels, plot-driven candies hastily devoured at the cabin or beach? "The Night Counter," Alia Yunis' first novel, mixes equal parts of magical realism, social commentary, family drama and lighthearted humor to create a delicious and intriguing indulgence worth savoring.
The story's central character is Fatima Abdullah, an 85-year-old Lebanese immigrant who raised 10 children in Detroit before she left her stoic husband to live with her gay actor grandson in Los Angeles. Yunis adds a dash of magic: Scheherazade, the mythical storyteller, appears to Fatima, requiring a story from her for 1,001 nights, after which Fatima will die. Then Yunis thickens the plot: Having run out of childhood reminiscences with nine nights to go, Fatima prepares for her impending death.
As she agonizes over which children should receive her treasures, she finally shares with the immortal Scheherazade the stories of her complex children, who include an alcoholic Harvard cabdriver who marries on first dates, a Texan housewife struggling to erase her ethnicity and an Internet matchmaker unlucky at love. By day, Scheherazade flies (on her magic carpet, of course) to observe the offspring, weaving Fatima's laments into a complete and compelling tale.
But the book is far more than a fantastic family story. Yunis masterfully adds not only classical literature references, most prominently "The Arabian Nights," but she also delivers a searing yet humorous commentary about the difficulties confronting Arab-Americans living in the post-9/11 United States. She presents the reader with a catalog of clichés -- such as faux-Middle Eastern belly dancers in Vegas and a hippie fortuneteller with a fake crystal ball -- and challenges her readers to rethink these stereotypes as the characters' personal crises mirror larger geo-political events.
The book and Yunis both have Minnesota origins: The novel began as a short story that was published in Mizna, a local literary magazine that focuses on writing by Arab-Americans, and Yunis spent part of her childhood in the Twin Cities. The narrative, which travels around the United States, includes a comical stop at the University of Minnesota.
After stirring in two bumbling FBI agents to bring the conflict to a boil, Yunis ultimately takes the reader on a behind-the-scenes-tour of Arab America while teaching that family obligations can sometimes blossom into meaningful love. Heartwarming, silly and sometimes scathingly accurate, the novel is a perfect choice for book clubs. Read with a side of Fatima's hummus; the recipe is available on the author's blog, aliayunis.com/.
Kathryn Kysar is a poet, anthologist and professor who lives in St. Paul.