The Wrong End of the Telescope
Rabih Alameddine. Grove, $26 (368) ISBN 978-0-8021-5780-5
A Lebanese doctor travels to the island of Lesbos to help refugees and confront her past in the profound and wonderful latest from Alameddine (The Angel of History), a meditation on loss, resilience, and love. Born in Beirut but long settled in the U.S., Mina Simpson is trans and estranged from every member of her family except her older brother Mazen, who flies to the island to assist her. Soon, their paths cross that of a blocked Lebanese writer. The chapters alternate between Mina’s account of her time on Lesbos, where she treats a Syrian woman named Sumaiya who is dying from liver cancer and pleads with Mina not to tell her family, and second-person narration directed at the writer, who encouraged Mina to write about the refugees because he didn’t feel up to the task (“You weren’t able to find the right words even after numerous sessions on your psychiatrist’s couch,” Mina narrates). Confronted by the pain so many refugees describe, Mina recalls the lost world of her own childhood and bonds with Sumaiya over their shared desire to protect their families from the truth. As Mina and her writer-interlocutor are each consumed by the effort to communicate the horror of the refugee experience, Alameddine crafts a wise, deeply moving story that can still locate humor in the pit of hell (Mina, agreeing to let the writer tell her story, jokes, “Whatever you do ... don’t fucking call it A Lebanese Lesbian in Lesbos”). This is a triumph. Agent: Nicole Aragi, Aragi, Inc. (Sept.)
This review has been updated to clarify a plot point. It also has been corrected; a previous version incorrectly stated the character Sumaiya suffered from lung cancer.
Reviewed on: 06/16/2021