January 2014

Jessica Henkle

fiction

The Bullet Collection by Patricia Sarrafian Ward

Midway through Patricia Sarrafian Ward's novel The Bullet Collection, a relative tells the narrator, Marianna, "The past will never be undone," and Marianna says, "It seemed that something terrible lay in his words, as if they were a prophecy whose meaning I had failed to read." The next several years of Marianna's life will be spent learning, all too well, the meaning of her relative's statement. A twisting, haunting narrative, this book tells of a young narrator and her family as they endure the lengthy war in Beirut and, ultimately, relocate to the United States. But this is more than "just" another war story. This is an intimate exploration of what happens when innocence is ripped from children's lives, and they are confronted with terrible realities that even adults cannot stomach. These realities remain with Marianna until the past becomes everything -- swallowing the future and hijacking the present, despite the time and distance that should loosen its grip.

"Before the war was real," Marianna says, "the world went on forever and we were allowed to think of going places." The carefree days last only a few pages until the story jumps to the present, to a teenaged Marianna and her family in America, and it becomes clear that, in the decade between the two narratives, many things have gone terribly wrong. Throughout the novel, Marianna not only bounces back and forth between the past and present, but she also moves around within the past, causing a disorientation that is vital to understanding her experience. In the present, she is the only one who wants, even craves, to remember what happened in Beirut, and every fiber of her being calls her back. She says, "There is no order to nostalgia... There is how we came here, and why we had to. Not only the dead and the missing haunt me: every step, I long for my country that is not mine."

During the war years, Beirut is ravaged, and Ward's descriptions of the battle through the eyes of an, albeit perceptive, child are gripping: "the bombs sounded like beasts roaring from beneath the earth, popping my ears, shivering my eyelids, lifting the skin from my flesh." Though horrifying, for Marianna and her older sister, Alaine, the beginning of the war feels like a game: taking cover in the bathroom during bombings, telling each other stories late into the night, waiting for a lull in the fighting so they can go outside and explore the wreckage. When their parents let them out of the apartment, Marianna says, "We emerged with care, stepping like people avoiding ants, as if our very caution would protect us." But of course, nothing can, and while the battle rages on, a more insidious danger begins to creep in.

From a young age, Alaine shows signs of the depression that will later threaten to consume her, and the command she wields over the family mesmerizes Marianna, who says, "[Alaine's] stillness as a person was unlike anyone else's, so pure, as if she had slowed her heart and the pace of her blood so that even the space around her was affected." Marianna is jealous of everything her sister possesses, including her illness, but when that illness drives Alaine to run away and make repeated suicide attempts, Marianna assumes the role of protector. She takes seriously the responsibility of keeping her sister safe from both inner and outer harm and says, "Her memories eventually would be erased by the fog of medicines, but how could we know that yet? So even at my age I sensed that we needed to treat her delicately, as someone who would be forever haunted by memory. Years would pass before we realized that she had never remembered what we had been trying to help her forget." Years also pass before Marianna realizes that she, not Alaine, is the one who will be haunted.

As Marianna's teenage years arrive, the war shows no sign of letting up, and while Alaine is on the mend, Marianna falls prey to the same depression that overtook her sister. The family journeys to America, but what should be a fresh start only exacerbates Marianna's condition, as she tightens her hold on the country from which she's been torn. "You can't burn thoughts," she says, obsessed, not only with the past, but with the future that has been stolen from her -- namely, the life she would've lived had she remained in Beirut and had the country remained at peace. Looking at an album filled with photographs of her mother as a young woman, Marianna says, "I would have been just like her, surrounded by admirers at parties, dancing to Arabic music so beautifully that everyone stops and stares. I stare. It is how things should have been." But it is how things are not, though accepting this seems like murdering all she holds dear.

"Seeing things, I knew, is never as bad as being a part of them," Marianna says, "Nothing happened to me, I kept thinking, and this seemed clear and sad. I was a witness. I was the one in the window." Though she views herself as an observer, both of the war and of her sister's depression, Marianna is not simply a bystander. She grapples with every one of these experiences, as well as with her own illness, and all of it is what makes her cling to the past, desperate to find the answer to every lingering question. Near the end of the book, she says, "Maybe, one day, I will stop wanting to know." Though bleak, this seems the closest thing to hope that life can offer -- not a cessation of the questions, but an acceptance of the missing, or perhaps nonexistent, answers. This novel pushes under the reader's skin, and like a heartbeat, pulses with a truth that touches anyone who understands, not only what it means suffer loss, but to be the one who lives to ask why.

The Bullet Collection by Patricia Sarrafian Ward
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1555972998
320 pages