Sirine is a chef in a Middle Eastern restaurant in LA, the orphaned child of Red Cross worker parents killed in Africa, raised by an Iraqi uncle amongst poetry, literature, and fairy-tale like stories of family and possibly Omar Sharif.
Her tale is redolent with sumac, garlic, thyme and spotted olive oil and currants. There is a shifting POV that creates uneasiness to her story, that puts you offbalance when you read about her love affair with an Iraqi exile professor or when you listen to her uncle talk about the journey of her grandmother to find her missing so, the man who sells himself as a slave and then pretends to drown by throwing himself off the boat mid-sea and is stolen by a mermaid before he comes to the USA.
And it is also the tale of longing, love, and loss for a country, for an identity, as the cafe where Sirine works is mainly populated by emigres and students from Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Egypt– all the colors and flavors of what being an Arab might mean as they are irresistably drawn to the food and memories she creates.
There are also dark political undercurrents in the story that ultimately drag some of the main characters down, the legacy of the USA’s embargo against Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s rule.
At the end, you are left full, like you’ve eaten a veritable fragrant feast of emotions and history and tales, but also uncomfortable like you’ve taken in too much, too much of Sirine’s friends caring for her, of the mysterious photographer Nathan’s heartbreak, of the tragedy of loving a country and having to leave it in Sirine’s lover, Han. This is a beautiful, difficult tale, and near the end, I got impatient with the author’s pattern of just listing food ingredients as some kind of code for Sirine’s mental state, but could not fault the overall emotionally deep affect.