cover image I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops

I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops

Hanan al-Shaykh, Hanan Shaykh. Anchor Books, $15 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-385-49127-3

In the first of these 17 finely honed stories, a stifled Lebanese wife feigns madness in order to get a divorce from her obtuse but, it turns out, surprisingly resilient and devoted husband. Asked her age, Fatin replies, ""The age of madness."" This combination of sangfroid and desperation, truly mad situations and sane protagonists, sets the tone for al-Shaykh's (Beirut Blues) fiction. Several stories, notably ""The Marriage Fair,"" spin plots from the ostracism an unmarried woman may endure in the Arab world. In ""The Land of Dreams,"" a female Danish missionary in a Yemeni village tries to find a third way past the impossible choice between a life in the church and a naive assimilation into the surrounding village, which takes an interest in her that has nothing to do with her religious work. The poignant ""I Don't Want to Grow Up"" concerns a young girl and her brother living in an oil-company compound whose conception of the world is shattered by their servant's clever pragmatism. Setting her tales in the Middle East, North Africa and London, al-Shaykh uses intellectual lightness to buoy even the most oppressive of situations: insanity, suicide, abandonment and immolation. These short narratives represent the faith of a dedicated rationalist whose favorite subject is the stubbornness of unreason in matters of the heart and hearth. (Aug.)