In The House of Youssef, the stunning, succinct collection of short fiction by Yumna Kassab, the disconnect that so often occurs between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters is elegantly blended with the isolation and loneliness experienced by Lebanese immigrant families in the western suburbs of Sydney. These stories are about family, and about relationships – between husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings, friends – and perhaps most poignantly, between those who have left their home country and those who have remained behind.
Kassab’s writing is minimalist, with many stories sitting at two pages in length, some of which are arguably the strongest pieces in the collection. The strength of her prose is best displayed in the first parts of the book, ‘Motherland’ and ‘The House of Youssef’. Here, Kassab details moments of disconnect and isolation within the aforementioned relationships. A particularly heartbreaking story follows a woman attempting to write a letter to her friend, Fatima, following her death. Another explores the life of a daughter disowned by her family for marrying a white man, finding out many months after the fact of her parents’ passing. These explorations of the subtle agonies of family are breath-taking – for example, when you have worked so hard for your children to lead vastly different lives to your own, how do you relate to one another when they behave in a way completely foreign to you? Conversely, how do you grapple with the highs and lows of your first love when your parents extol the virtues of arranged marriage daily? How do you guide your children onto the right path when that path is entirely unfamiliar?
These stories, and others like them, are devastating. Kassab doesn’t need many words to communicate the agony and loneliness felt by these characters, and neither does the reader. As such, the prose of the book’s second half, in the much-longer stories of ‘Homing’ and ‘Darkness, Speak’, feels somewhat overburdened and heavy – while these stories, almost monologues, are just as moving as their earlier counterparts, one feels as if the extra word count is perhaps unnecessary. Having said that, it’s wonderful to read first-person narratives so intimately exploring the voices of first-generation migrants living at jarring odds with their new Australian surroundings. These voices must be heard; their stories must be told. We must listen, particularly at a time in our collective societal experience when the lines of division between cultural backgrounds seem to, sadly, be enforced so clearly. Kassab’s work is a striking reminder of the power of fiction.
3.5 stars out of 5 ★★★☆
The House of Youssef by Yumna Kassab
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing
Categories: Fiction | Australian | Short Stories
Release date: September 2019