Ordinarily, coming-of-age stories build to a pivotal moment when protagonists who are not yet adults become them. “The Catcher in the Rye” remains a prevailing model. But in real life, only the lucky — or unlucky — among us grow up just once. More often, coming-of-age happens repeatedly, in irregular and bewildering bursts.
“Enter Ghost,” Isabella Hammad’s terrific second novel, centers on a woman undergoing one such existential growth spurt. Sonia, a British-Palestinian actor in her late 30s, is recovering from a troubled romance with a director who raised her hopes not only for her love life but for her faltering career. In the affair’s aftermath, she takes a prolonged trip to Haifa, Israel, where her father grew up and her sister, Haneen, now lives. Her intention is to lick her wounds, spend some quality time with Haneen and return to London rejuvenated. Instead, she is talked into joining a staging of “Hamlet” in the West Bank, a decision that leads to both a quest for political knowledge and a painful awakening.
Hammad’s elegantly sprawling debut, “The Parisian” (2019), began in Nablus in the early 20th century and traversed decades of Palestinian history. “Enter Ghost,” though contemporary, is thoroughly infused with Palestine’s past — and thoroughly haunted by Sonia’s. Hammad, who is both a delicate writer and an exact one, intertwines the two, taking care to give Sonia as many personal ghosts as she does historical ones.
Mariam, the prickly, politically connected director of the “Hamlet” production, seems at first not to be haunted. She’s a single mother whose domestic life Sonia envies. She covets the bohemian warmth of Mariam’s house in the West Bank, and watching Mariam with her son draws Sonia repeatedly into memories of her marriage, which ended several years ago after a pregnancy loss. For Sonia, Mariam’s life is one that could have been hers.
Both Sonia’s family and Mariam’s remained in Israel after 1948, when most Palestinian Arabs were driven out. (To distinguish between settlements and territory considered Israeli, Hammad’s characters refer to the latter as “inside” or “in ’48.”) Sonia grew up visiting her grandparents in Haifa yearly, developing a sense of the privilege — tricky though it may be — afforded by her relatives’ Israeli passports.
She and Haneen took comfort in dissecting “the ways our family both discussed and did not discuss our relation to the West Bank Palestinians.” But when their uncle, a doctor, brought them to Bethlehem as teenagers to visit a newly released hunger striker who remained unable to eat, the sisters’ reactions diverged sharply. For Haneen, the trip to the West Bank was a spur to political dedication. For Sonia, it was so unsettling that she vowed never to return. Now, coming back with Mariam more than 20 years later, she sees the territory through adolescent and adult eyes at once.
Initially, Sonia is struck by the normality of life on occupied land. Arriving in Ramallah for her first read-through, she thinks it doesn’t “look particularly war-torn. It also felt remarkably familiar.” Before long, though, her perceptions deepen. Her fellow actors, a mix of West Bank Palestinians and ones born “inside,” want “Hamlet” to represent, or speak directly to, the story of Palestine. Sonia starts out dismissing this reading, but comes to understand that her castmates need it to play their roles effectively. In one moving scene, Mariam coaches Wael, the young actor playing Hamlet, to channel the character’s dark side by embodying one of the Israeli border guards who harass him throughout the novel.
Yet Mariam relies less on symbolism than optimism, which she considers key to her directing, her politics and her parenting. She demands hope from herself, no matter how hard it is to conjure. Sonia admires this trait profoundly. Feeling uncertain in her London life and ill-equipped for the one she is suddenly leading in Haifa and Ramallah, Sonia sees Mariam as “so clearly outlined, polished by the weight of the world against which she is pushing.” She seems not to notice that Mariam has a secretive, egotistic streak, and not until Haneen mentions it does Sonia register that Mariam’s political dedication may have had an emotional cost.
Of course, so does Sonia’s political awakening, though the effect seems primarily positive until the novel’s wrenching end. Caring about and committing to the Palestinian cause brings her increased connection to her family, both in the abstract and, when she learns her father has a militant past, in the very concrete. It helps her understand the tensions between her castmates, and helps her work with them as a true peer. It brings her the furious energy that solidarity can create.
In a tense and excellent scene, Sonia attends her first demonstration, against increased security at Al-Aqsa Mosque after a violent incident. While there, she wonders, angrily, if the Israeli soldiers surrounding the demonstrators truly imagine they are “guarding against a group of Muslim fanatics? … Or did some of them know what they were really doing?” Just as often, her inquiries — and the novel’s — are not angry, but baffled and wounded. On the phone, Sonia’s aging father tells her: “Palestine is gone. We lost her a long time ago.” One of the book’s driving questions is whether it is right to act as if this is true, regardless of whether you believe it.
Sonia notes, a little contemptuously, that “nothing is more flattering to an artist than the illusion that he is a secret revolutionary.” Hammad does not indulge in that illusion. Neither is she defeatist in her portrait of art’s role. If she shares any of Sonia’s scorn, it is toward secrecy. In “Enter Ghost,” concealment and subterfuge end poorly, as the title — and “Hamlet” — would suggest. Indeed, the novel seems to argue, real growth and connection, both political and personal, cannot begin until everyone’s ghosts have emerged from hiding. Art is, if nothing else, a powerful tool for coaxing them out.
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