Not To Be Overlooked
By Emily Simms and Emma Wallace
Not To Be Overlooked introduces a variety of wonderful but lesser-known books to assist readers in finding their next great reads. This week’s column covers reviews of The Book Collectors of Daraya by Delphine Minoui and Happening by Annie Ernaux.
The Book Collectors of Daraya by Delphine Minoui. Trans by Lara Vergnaud
Delphine Minoui, the award-winning French journalist specialising in the Iranian world, came across a photo by chance on Facebook that led to the origins of this incredible book. Captioned “the secret library of Daraya,” this suburb of Damascus in Syria is usually synonymous with rebels, siege and destruction, but this book captures the essence of Daraya, which is its people. I initially gravitated towards this book after reading the tagline of the "underground library", which is so integral to the core of the story, but it was the lives of the librarians that I became invested in.
Covering the span of the four-year siege by Syrian government forces from 2012 – 2016, Minoui pieces together Skype conversations, WhatsApp messages and recorded footage, to paint a picture of the landscape of Daraya and the library they forged from the literal rubble. Ahmed is the first voice we are introduced to: a twenty-three-year-old, before the revolution a civil engineering student, who had dreams of becoming a journalist. Whilst his family fled to a neighbouring town when they could, Ahmed stayed behind to expose the truth and fight for his generation’s right to peace and democracy. The book questions "What does a reader look like?" In one of the photos in the book, Omar, another of the librarians and anti-Assad fighter, is sat reading in the mini library he had built on the front line. Whilst as many as eighty barrel bombs fell on Daraya daily, what remained of their community came together to educate one another, and provide a safe space for education. Reading is and always has been an act of transgression against deception and ignorance.
As a work of non-fiction, it is one of the most emotive and informative accounts of humanity that I have ever read. Despite never having visited Daraya or witnessing the marvel of the secret library, Minoui is able to create a fully formed image of the people and place that this book is an ode to. As a westerner, it is easy to detach ourselves from the news and the stories we read of "another place" and while buildings fall, we can overlook the people they belong to. This book tells the story of a group of young Syrian revolutionaries, booklovers and activists, who whilst abandoned by the world, fought for their right to live in a better world.
Happening by Annie Ernaux. Trans Tanya Leslie
It was while reading an article in The Atlantic on Cèline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire that I first came across Annie Ernaux’s work. Credited by Sciamma as the inspiration for her radical and refreshing depiction of abortion, Happening is an autobiographical recollection of Ernaux’s experiences as a young woman in 1963, following her discovery that she is pregnant. Twenty-three, unattached and fearful of the social stigma that will come from her unmarried status, Ernaux knows that she cannot keep the child. Abortion is illegal in a France and few safe avenues are available, prompting Ernaux not only to make a vain attempt at self-administering the abortion with a knitting needle, but to seek out an operation that almost kills her.
One of the most engrossing aspects of the novel is the fact that Happening does not treat any of these details as a spoiler. It is a story told with the hindsight of forty years and is far more concerned with the repercussions of these events, than the events themselves. Happening frames itself as an investigation into unforgettable moments and the influence that they exert over people’s psyches. It attempts to piece together, with startling detail, the chain of happenings that come to determine Ernaux’s later life.
Beautifully translated by Tanya Leslie, the writing style complements the stripped-back simplicity of the Fitzcarraldo Edition covers. It is sparsely told with almost alarming levels of Stoicism and equally harrowing levels of detail, which might be unnerving for many. The sections which recount Ernaux’s botched abortion are especially jarring, given Ernaux’s fastidiousness. There is, however, both a lyricism and a resolve within Ernaux’s writing, one which both humanises abortion and reminds its reader of the casualties when laws that prohibit access to it persist.
Ernaux’s novella is a piece of social history that, sadly, remains ever pertinent, given the still contentious nature of abortion in France and elsewhere. Happening seems in many ways conscious that it is one story among many about the impacts of abortion restrictions. It is a brief account, which offers us a window, almost like the pane of a tapestry, into a story that feels part of a wider narrative.