Book review: Songs for the Dead and the Living, Sara M Saleh

A powerful story about what it means to find home and identity among conflict and migration.

Sara M Saleh’s Songs for the Dead and the Living is a powerful story about what it means to find home. This book is thrilling and frenzied in some parts, while in others, quiet and moving.

Songs for the Dead and the Living invites the reader into a vibrant world of family and community where Saleh captures a vivid coming-of-age tale. The book is her debut novel, published through the Affirm Press/Sweatshop Mentorship Program.

The story centres on Jamilah, the daughter of a Lebanese mother and Palestinian father. The reader follows her as her family flees war-torn Beirut for Cairo, leaving behind the place in which she grew up. Her story exposes the complexity of finding home and identity among conflict and migration. Along the way, it is the characters that accompany her that inject so much life into this book. Jamilah is surrounded by family, and it is their love and loss that make for some of the most poignant moments.

Grief and celebration intertwine to create an intricate and stunning portrayal of Jamilah’s life. Seeing the world through her eyes and film camera offers readers an intimate family portrait. Saleh’s writing is poetic and striking, transporting readers directly into the family kitchen or the streets of Cairo. There are moments of pure tenderness among scenes of precarity and risk. Shifting between these junctures with ease, Saleh’s prose has a luminescent and evocative quality.

The book is brimming with culture. Saleh’s vivid descriptions of food – from the ‘Lebanese flatbread dripping with zaatar doused in olive oil’ to the scent of cardamom-roasted coffee beans – convey the connection of family and food. The jangling sounds of “shik, shak, shok” echo off the page. The use of Arabic phrases draws readers into the world painted by Saleh, as if we too were sitting around the family table. Ultimately, it is the strong sense of culture and family that comes across through these signifiers that makes the book so rich and enveloping.

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Songs for the Dead and the Living is an exquisitely crafted book, and makes the mundane moments glitter. This is a tale of strong women, family and youth. Set among war and new beginnings, the story is both moving and energetic. Gripping until the end, it’s a book that is sure to stir.

Songs for the Dead and the Living by Sara M Saleh
Publisher: Affirm Press
ISBN: 9781922848536
Format: Paperback
Pages: 228 pages
Release date: 29 August 2023
RRP: $34.99

This review is published under the Amplify Collective, an initiative supported by The Walkley Foundation and made possible through funding from the Meta Australian News Fund.

Ava Cadee is a Lebanese-Australian law student, writer and poet. She is originally from Boorloo (so-called Perth), and currently lives and works on Ngunnawal and Ngambri land (so-called Canberra).