"Ruins of Us" is a wise, compelling novel with a gripping story that springs organically from the setting. By exploring universal themes of love, loss, marriage, exile, authenticity and redemption in Saudi Arabia, a region that has witnessed sweeping historical changes and shaped the trajectory of major recent world events, the author is able to offer fresh and surprising insights. The novel reflects a deep understanding of the culture, history and politics in the region, the complex interplay among them and the subtle and profound pressures they exert on highly personal predicaments.
Rosalie, a spirited, gutsy Texan and Abdullah Baylani, a wealthy, sociable and dynamic Saudi, meet and fall in love in Austin, while they are college students. After they marry, they move to Saudi Arabia. Rosalie had lived in Saudi Arabia as a child and feels a passionate connection to the land. When the novel opens, the Baylanis have been married for twenty-seven years. They live comfortably in a refined, elegant world full of warm, convivial family gatherings, laughter and hospitality. Rosalie, who speaks fluent Arabic and even dreams in the language, has adapted gracefully to the culture. But things are not as rosy as they seem. Rosalie soon discovers that two years before, Abdullah had secretly, though lawfully, married another woman, a young, educated Palestinian widow.
The novel follows the fallout from this discovery. Rosalie is stunned and consumed by the betrayal. Abdullah is by turns guilty, defiant, defensive and vexed, and tries to calm the tumult in his personal life so that he can juggle his business interests and finesse his relations with the princes who award contracts. As the parents get sucked into the maelstrom, they fail to attend to the needs of their children. Miriam, their lively, optimistic fourteen-year-old, is resilient and tries to emulate her heroes--journalists who test received ideas. But the sixteen-year-old son, Faisal, suffers. He searches for identity and meaning in a post-9/11 world where he becomes acutely conscious of his mixed heritage, his “difference.” Faisal is susceptible to the teachings of charismatic preachers, who conjure up romantic visions of warriors fighting for glory in the name of their faith.
While Rosalie broods over the deception—sifting through her memories, reflecting on the nature of love, wondering how someone with whom she has had almost telepathic communication could also be so unknowable--she also weighs her practical options. Should she stay in the marriage or leave? If she chose to go, could she do so without her husband’s permission? Should she send her children away? Even if they could leave, would they want to?
There is a lot to love in this novel: There are gorgeous lyrical descriptions that capture the timelessness of the desert, the wide expanses of sea and sky, and make the reader feel, viscerally, what it like to live, breathe and move in the desert and near the Gulf waters. The story is riveting and skillfully paced. The author, who lived in Saudi Arabia as a child, understands the culture and history of the region, the sweeping generational changes and the fallout from 9/11. She deftly explores how shifting political winds and changing cultural norms exert pressure on individuals as they go about their daily lives and grapple with personal dilemmas.
The characterization is expert: the characters are rounded and complex and we have access to the full range of their thoughts and feelings. The author shows how memories are subtly altered as they are recollected through the lens of present joys or present griefs. She shows how we continue our internal debates with people from whom we have been separated for many years and by great distances; how the people we love sometimes appears to us to be semblances of their “real” selves. She reflects on love: how it has an “edge of fear,” is made up of “peculiar memories,” and contains the “lonely aches of former loves.” And she shows, in an immediate and sensory way, what it is like to experience tragedy: how curiosity, heightened awareness and detachment often accompany it and how, in the midst of it, we can register differences between the actual experience and the newspaper accounts of such experiences.
Faisal, the sixteen-year-old son is deftly and skillfully drawn. His nuanced portrayal offers a piece of the puzzle for readers searching for answers in the aftermath of 9/11. The novel shows how a potent mix of factors can propel a sensitive, uncertain boy towards actions that have serious consequences. Faisal’s natural temperament, adolescent longings for affirmation and identity, turbulent home life, anxiety in the face of rapid shifts in attitudes towards the West, romantic feelings for a mythic past, and his infatuation with charismatic men who bemoan the loss of tradition and uphold narrow notions of piety and manhood, all come together to set off a chain of fateful events.
Faisal is not some inflexible, hardened, narrow religious extremist. Rather, he is an obedient, soulful boy and longs for the purity, naturalness and decisiveness that existed in his grandfather’s time. He has been humiliated in his expensive Swiss school and when he returns home struggles to understand what it means to be a man. His father is too preoccupied by his business and love life, is not especially spiritual and is unapologetic about his love of modernity and wealth. His mother’s difference makes him feel different in a society where difference can suddenly become problematic. Because he often feels soft, obedient, ineffectual and too reverential, Faisal tries to compensate by assuming the role of a calculating, tight-lipped, stoic man who won’t hesitate to throw his weight and treat his parents like unruly children. He is aware of inequalities and feels the weight of secrets—his parents’ and the kingdom’s—and is susceptible to the influences of confident, enigmatic men.
The author deftly shows how an adolescent who is constantly struggling to invent himself, who panics at the thought of losing respect from others, who lacks his sister’s trusting heart, facility with words, clear mind and self-assurance, confuses manhood with physical actions and role-plays his way into radicalism. A crisis forces him to re-examine absolutist ideologies and turn away from extremism. The author carefully charts his growth and his acceptance of authenticity and responsibility.
"Ruins" raises thoughtful and probing questions for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. How do you live in a place and flourish to your potential? How do you develop resilience when faced with rapid change? How do you hang on to a trusting heart in places steeped in secrets? When is it appropriate to defer to authority and when to defy it? How do you voice concerns about injustice and hypocrisy without tipping into absolutism and muddled thinking? How do you respond to the power and beauty of prayers without succumbing to charismatic leaders who might preach prejudice? Why should words and touch be considered emasculating? How could faith be equated with glory and battle scars rather than compassion, understanding, serenity and sensitivity to suffering?
"Ruins of Us" is a wise, important novel with an exotic setting and a compelling, well-paced story. It is lyrically written and has many perceptive observations and profound insights about our interior lives. It is ideal for book clubs, and ideal for campus reading lists.