The Singularity by Balsam Karam review – a brilliant and beautiful study of displacement
At first glance, this appears to be a book that could have been created by artificial intelligence in order to combine reliably effective components. It touches on the relevant issue of the challenges faced by refugees and also explores themes of motherhood, which were highlighted in two of the titles shortlisted for last year’s International Booker prize. Additionally, it is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, known as the trendiest publisher in the area.
However, The Singularity, the sophomore book (and debut English publication) written by Balsam Karam, a Swedish writer with Iranian-Kurdish roots, demonstrates the unparalleled brilliance of human imagination. No artificial intelligence could replicate the unexpected plot twists, varied tones, and combination of compassion and wit that make it truly fulfilling. Additionally, it serves as proof that Fitzcarraldo maintains its popularity by consistently pursuing its unique artistic vision, as exemplified by this exceptional work.
The setting of the story is ambiguous, taking place in a nameless coastal city divided into affluent and impoverished areas. The city is currently undergoing redevelopment, resulting in an uneven distribution of change, which is mirrored in the chaotic structure of the narrative. The corniche, a coastal road, serves as a barrier against the sea and is occupied by refugees, including many children. One mother, who has lost her daughter, spends her days aimlessly wandering the corniche in search of her child, known as “the Missing One”. However, as the story progresses, the focus shifts towards the other neglected children.
This is the part of the book where it is most likely to fail. The parts about the children are not subtle and strongly emphasize the negative aspects of their lives. These include the unpleasantness of their environment, described as “where the palm trees droop and the earth corrodes green and brown,” as well as how they have to count the burn marks on their mother’s skin from cigarettes. The narrative also does not give much attention to an aid agency that offers insincere greetings and promises to return soon. The only person who is portrayed positively is a greengrocer who provides food for the children.
However, a turning point occurs that artificial intelligence could never anticipate, highlighting the significance of a writer who is always ahead. The perspective shifts to a different woman who has a connection to the mother of the Missing One. She is on a work trip to the affluent area of the town, and the story quickly switches back and forth – separated by forward slashes – between her interactions with the mother and her own difficult pregnancy. This creates a powerfully impactful, flowing poetic contrast between two distinct experiences.
The most exciting portion is yet to come in the final section, where the second woman’s childhood tale is recounted – now as a young girl – and divided into brief, impactful vignettes, one per page. We are informed about her initial job; her friend who was discovered amidst the debris after a bombing; and her relocation to a different country. These scenes are concise yet powerful, conveying a wealth of information in just a few words and allowing room for the reader to actively participate in the story’s development. The most poignant moments depict the struggle of adapting to a new culture, such as when the girl invites her school friends over and requests her grandmother to make pancakes instead of her customary stew.
Embarking on a new journey, she discovers that it requires leaving behind her past life. In a poignant moment, depicted in just five lines, the girl’s mother retires to bed while attempting to comprehend her children’s enthusiastic conversations in their newly learned language. Language plays a central role in The Singularity, transitioning from disorder and noise to the serene simplicity of one voice, showcasing its brilliance and beauty.
The book “The Singularity” by Balsam Karam, translated by Saskia Vogel, is available for purchase from Fitzcarraldo Editions at a price of £10.99. To support the Guardian and Observer, you can order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Additional charges may apply for delivery.