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Not to be Overlooked

By Nayisha Patel and Jasmine Aldridge

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 A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum and Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett.

A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum

In A Woman Is No Man, Etaf Rum tells a powerful and moving story that exposes the oppressive patriarchal traditions and intergenerational trauma that three generations of Palestinian women in America must endure. Rum gives us a glimpse into the lives of these women as they struggle with the burden of tradition, the influence of silence and the never-ending pursuit of freedom through her evocative prose and personal character profiles. 

The protagonists of the book are Isra, a young Palestinian woman married off to an unknown man in Brooklyn, and her daughter, Deya, who longs to escape the limitations of her conventional upbringing. While Isra battles to assert herself in a home dominated by her controlling mother-in-law and tyrannical husband, Deya considers identity, belonging and the consequences of her family's traumatic history.

With a gentle intensity, Rum's story takes the reader into the Al-Mehmas family's complicated relationships. She deftly interweaves the stories of Isra, Deya and Fareeda, using a combination of alternate perspectives and dates to demonstrate the connection between their experiences and the ways that silence echoes over generations. Fundamentally, A Woman Is No Man is a potent critique of the gender conventions and cultural standards that oppress and mute women in traditional Arab societies. Rum bravely reveals the terrible realities that her characters must endure, such as the oppressive restrictions of an arranged marriage, and the subtle ways that women are used as weapons of shame and honour. Nevertheless, there are rays of hope and resilience among the shadows. Isra and Deya start to express their right to self-determination and regain their agency both through little and massive acts of resistance. Rum urges readers to bear witness to the hardships and victories of these brave women through her compassionate and urgent prose.

An important and incredibly emotional book, A Woman Is No Man addresses the global fight for autonomy and self-expression. Etaf Rum's debut demonstrates the ability of narrative to shed light on the shadowy sides of human existence and offer hope in the face of hardship.

Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett 

Checkout 19 is Claire-Louise Bennett’s second book following her successful debut, Pond, in 2015, and it is the perfect read for anyone devoted to literature. The novel follows the life of an unnamed woman as she navigates her memories and emotions. A central comparative point for the narrator is viewing her life through the lens of books and stories. Tracing her memories from her school days to the present with immense narrative skill and immersion, this novel explores identity, reflection and finding yourself in the never-ending throes of life. 

Written as a continuous fluid monologue, at first Checkout 19 can seem daunting or even off-putting. Yet, once you settle into its flow, you find yourself being drawn involuntarily into the mind and world of this woman, who you get to know intimately across the novel’s 216 pages. One thing that quickly becomes clear even from the opening chapters is the focus on books and their presence in the narrator’s life. It is a unique experience as an avid reader to get a glimpse into the mind of another person whose life also revolves around literature, and it is this synergy that adds to the gripping pace of the narrative. This passion underpins everything, from the protagonist’s school days figuring out her feelings for a teacher to her navigating adult friendships and relationships whilst discovering her own sense of self-worth and hidden genius. This combination of a reflective, yet at times exhausting, voice alongside the stages of life that resonate the most, makes the book dynamic and gripping in spite of its literary complexity. 

If you are looking for a more experimental, thought-provoking read for the coming summer days, Checkout 19 will provide you with both a challenging and rewarding experience. At times comedic and emotional, the plot resonates deeply with a collective experience of navigating life’s highs and lows through the escapism and identity-forming world of books. It is an explosive and elating read. 


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