The 13 stories in Randa Jarrar’s “Him, Me, Muhammad Ali” can feel as intimate as a family dinner and as timeless as myths that have persisted for centuries.

The fiction in this collection occupies a vast stylistic range, as Jarrar is equally comfortable telling realistic stories of families and relationships in conflict as she is in exploring more fantastical subjects. The result is a book that never succumbs to predictability; instead, Jarrar uses memorable imagery and character dynamics to examine a host of themes.

Bookending the collection are two stories that blend the mythological with the contemporary. The narrator of “The Life, Loves, and Adventures of Zelwa the Halfie” struggles with dating and her complicated relationship with her father, both things that many readers can relate to. And while they may not be able to relate to Zelwa being half human and half ibex, the sense of alienation that this gives her is powerfully rendered in Jarrar’s prose. “The Lunatics’ Eclipse,” which opens the book, is a tender story of love and devotion, but also features the moon doing things that would be impossible in a more realistic story.

But when Jarrar ventures into realism, her work is memorable for different reasons. The narrator of the title story struggles in the aftermath of her father’s death and flashes back to his complex life, which covered many continents; juxtaposes her parents’ courtship with the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight in Zaire, where they met, and travels from New York to Cairo to scatter his ashes. And the narrator of “Lost in Freakin’ Yonkers” grapples with an unexpected pregnancy and her family’s disapproval of her decisions in life. Jarrar deftly captures the conflicted emotions that can arise when trying to navigate your own identity and the expectations of loved ones.

There isn’t a lot of middle ground between Jarrar’s more fantastical and more realistic stories — they’re in the realm of the deeply grounded, or they quickly introduce themselves as having roots in the fundamentally unreal. What these stories do have in common is a fantastic sense of place, a scope that crosses national and cultural borders and a precise immersion of the reader inside her characters’ minds.

With subtle and precise storytelling, Jarrar has an almost tactile command of the settings of these narratives, and the result is a powerful evocation of the complex dynamics at work in contemporary life.

 

Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.

Him, Me, Muhammad Ali
By: Randa Jarrar.
Publisher: Sarabande Books, 201 pages, $15.95.