The Mujahids, if somewhat more privileged than their neighbours, are a typically itinerant Palestinian family who have learnt to attach sentimental value "only to the small things, the ones that could be thrown into suitcases and scurried away with". Originally from Jaffa, now returned from Tunis, Beirut and Scandinavia, at the novel's opening, they are living in Gaza in the early years of the Second Intifada.
One of the many strengths of Selma Dabbagh's writing is its unerringly precise sense of place. Gaza is "like dried-out coral, ridged, chambered and sandy". It contrasts with Israel, which, studded by solar panels, swimming pools and irrigated fields, looks from above like "an elaborate blanket of modernist design". Life in the Mujahid apartment, between the noise of nearby families and the louder noise of warplanes and helicopters, may be like "camping under a flyover", but it is better than living in tents as the neighbours — refugees from house demolitions — are forced to do.
The details of dispossession and siege are relentlessly accumulated: the rotting flowers and fruit blocked off from the market by the "closure", the targeted killings, incursions and arbitrary arrests, and the increasingly violent internal competition between the religious parties and the corrupt Palestinian National Authority.
In such an environment, hope is "the thing that could devastate them all". Yet each family member aims, in some way or the other, to escape their predicament. The mother, to save her skin, has eluded an earlier political identity (a secret which is teased out as the novel progresses).
Her son Sabri escapes nostalgia for his baby son and his Christian, Jerusalemite, activist wife, and for his own legs, all destroyed by an Israeli bomb, by recording and analysing the oppression around him. He hopes that his efforts will one day sway the world towards recognition, and justice. His younger brother Rashid's way "out of it" is via a marijuana plant called Gloria, and then by travel. His visa documents for London, and reunion with his girlfriend Lisa, are "certificates of release".
Rashid's sister Eman is tempted by the escapist dream of dramatic action. "We have a role for you," a hyper-religious co-worker ominously intones. Eman is not the type to blow herself up — not until one of her students is killed by Israeli bombing: "Deaths of children changed everything. Resistance movements started with dead children." But the attempt to recruit her is observed by Ziyyad, an orphaned fighter and a family friend. He arranges to have Eman safely packed off to join her father in the Gulf.
This is a successful debut novel from a British Palestinian writer who has already notched up successes with her short stories. Like a good short story, Out of It manages to fit in a great deal without feeling crowded. Dabbagh does group scenes best, observing and analysing power relationships, and evokes the complexity of family relationships, with their tangles of love, jealousy, resentment, intimacy and distance.
One negative point is the overuse of Arabic phrases followed by translation. This risks alienating the general reader and exoticising material which Dabbagh has so carefully depicted from within as (horrifically) "ordinary". Otherwise, the novel is full of exact, unexpected images (an old English house is like a cross-dresser, "sloppy thatch flopped like a lady's hat and the climbing roses were like rouge").
Robin Yassin-Kassab's The Road From Damascus is published by Penguin.
Out of It By Selma Dabbagh,Bloomsbury USA,320 pages, $14