Book reviews: The Lovers, Yumna Kassab

A tale about the complexities of desire.

Yumna Kassab’s new novel, The Lovers, opens with a line that will reverberate throughout the narrative – ‘what Amir loved most about Jamila was that she smelled of money’. With grace, lyricism and deceptive simplicity, Kassab sets out the complex map of desire that will fuel the slow burn of The Lovers.

Jamila and Amir are the lovers of the title. Together, they become symbolic of the duality of the tidal motion of attraction. Jamila is rich, Amir is poor; Jamila is impulsive, while Amir is cautious. Together, they are magnetised towards one another– a meeting of opposites. Neither of them is new to love.

Jamila is restless; she understands the complicated relationship between desire and power. ‘Her idea of love was demented,’ writes Kassab. ‘It was a misshapen creature. Give it wings of bamboo but no matter the love and attention and devotion you lavish on it, you cannot make this creature fly.’ Amir, a widower, is more grounded – yet also, in some ways, more naïve. He loves Jamila, but without an awareness of how her familial background has shaped the way in which she holds herself in the world. Yet Jamila fails to fully comprehend Amir’s sense of the frailty of the bonds that knit them together, which transform them from mere individuals into lovers.

The structure of the novel defies traditional constructs of linear narrative time; rather, Kassab disrupts the reader’s expectations through a polyphonic composition that constantly shifts temporally. The deconstruction of the structural solidity of beginning-middle-end and of a stable adherence to a particular narrative mode seek to disorientate the reader from their complacency. Just as Jamila and Amir cannot trust that their desire for one another is static or fixed, so too does the reader have to allow their conceptions of what a novel should be to evolve over the course of The Lovers.

The weaving together of the symbolism of birds as metaphors for what love can and cannot be returns in the closing pages of The Lovers. Jamila dreams of them both taking the form of birds: ‘they wheel and dive, they talk in different tongues but one another they understand’. Kassab articulates a comparison between the fragility of birds and ways in which love demands a gentle release of personal control, a deft slice of imagery that recurs within the novel.

Kassab uses – or gives the appearance of using – extremely pared-back language. She concentrates not on peripheral details, but on the dynamic between Jamila and Amir. This gives the effect of a dream; while faces are featureless, the emotional import of what unfolds is undeniably intense. In withholding fine, granular detail, Kassab opens her novel to the possibility of attaining the haunting quality of fairytales.

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The delicate power that fables hold – their universality, while retaining their specificity – is captured in The Lovers. Ultimately, Kassab’s novel rests on the premise of the ‘impossibility of language, of being able to ever understand someone else.’

The Lovers, Yumna Kassab
Publisher: Ultimo Press
ISBN: 9781761150623
Pages: 246pp
Publication Date: 2 November 2022
RRP: $32.99

Ellie Fisher is a writer. Her creative work has appeared in Westerly Magazine, Swim Meet Lit Mag, Devotion Zine, and Pulch Mag, amongst others. Ellie is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia. She splits her time between Kinjarling and Boorloo.