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Review: "A five star debut"

This review is from The Miramichi Reader, a great site that is quickly growing to be a player on the Canadian literary scene.

Montrealer Leila Marshy is of Palestinian-Newfoundland heritage and The Philistine (2018, Linda Leith Publishing) is her first novel. The Philistine is the story of Nadia Eid, the daughter of a Palestinian father and a Scottish-Canadian woman. Her father, Bishara, lives mostly in Egypt where he works for British Petroleum, so Nadia has seen very little of him over the years. She lives with her boyfriend Daniel, in Montreal the city of her birth.

One day, she sees a poster for a seat sale on flights to Egypt. She decides to go, but without Daniel. She wants to be with her father and other family members living there. In late 1987, she boards a plane and after a couple of flight changes, she disembarks in Cairo:

Cairo tackled her like an angry dog, knocked the wind out of her lungs. From the first step on the tarmac to the drive to the hotel to the collapse on her bed, she moved as if through an oven, no corner cooler than the next.

Escaping the confines of her of her hotel room after a brief illness, she encounters an English speaking man in front of an art gallery that is hosting a vernissage, or a private viewing. Wanting to get out of the oppressive heat, Nadia enters the gallery. There she meets Manal, a gallery employee and the woman who will change her life and in the process, help her discover not only the realities of Egypt (“In Egypt, you can be either two things. Either a vulture or a corpse.”) but find herself in a way she never expected.

Initially only a three-week trip, Nadia extends her stay, not only because of Manal but her relationship with her father is growing as well.

“You should have come to Cairo much sooner. It suits you to be here, ya Nadia.”

Nadia’s gradual understanding of the Palestinian cause compels her to want to learn more about this heretofore unknown side of her father and his past, as well as the work he is now doing with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, a humanitarian organization founded by Yasser Arafat’s brother Fathi.

The Philistine educates the reader as to the conditions of life in Egypt (at least as they were in the late 80’s) and the difficulties of anyone making any kind of life for themselves, let alone a female artist. Nadia is Manal’s muse, encouraging her to see herself as an artist, even obtaining and filling out all the application papers for various art schools internationally.

“I can’t believe I am doing this,” Manal said as they walked back from the post office. “I always wanted to be an artist, now I am an artist. I always wanted to study abroad, now I am applying.” She took Nadia’s arm and tucked it under own. “It is because of you.”

In return, Manal reveals the real Egypt to Nadia and it’s few opportunities for women to advance. Nadia holds out hope for Manal, but Manal is realistic and cannot continue believing in Nadia’s dreams for her or them.

A sensitive, artistically wrought story on several levels, The Philistine had me eager to return to it time after time. It was one of those reads that turned out better than expected, although I certainly didn’t have low expectations for it. One never knows with a first novel. Will it be interesting and well-written enough that you want to read the author’s next book? Or do you hope (or even care if) the author never writes another word? I can definitely state that The Philistine and Ms. Marshy fall into the first category. A five-star debut and The Philistine goes on the 2019 longlist for a “The Very Best!” Book Award in both the Fiction and First Book categories.

Read the review here.

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