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Book Cover Image: The Sweetness of Tears by Nafisa HajiTitle: The Sweetness of Tears

Author: Nafisa Haji

Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):

“When faith and facts collide, Jo March—a young woman born into an Evangelical Christian dynasty—wrestles with questions about who she is and how she fits into the weave of her faithful family. Chasing loose threads that she hopes will lead to the truth, Jo sets off on an unlikely quest across boundaries of language and religion, through chasms of sectarian divides in the Muslim world. Against the backdrop of the War on Terror—travelling from California to Chicago, Pakistan to Iraq—she delves deeply into the past, encountering relatives, often for the first time, whose histories are intricately intertwined with her own . . . only to learn that true spiritual devotion is a broken field riddled with doubt and that nothing is ever as it seems.”

Thoughts: I’ve been struggling to write my review of The Sweetness of Tears for weeks now and cannot adequately put into words the impact the book had. Ms. Haji’s story of family, politics, and religion delves into topics that most people consider to be too sensitive to discuss given their proximity to current events, but  she does so the sensitivity that the situation warrants. Jo March’s quest uncovers family secrets while allowing the reader the chance to put aside biases and view current events from another perspective. In the rapidly expanding global economy, where countries are becoming considerably more dependent upon each other, the lessons of tolerance and respect highlighted in The Sweetness of Tears is as timely as it is beautiful.

The Sweetness of Tears is one of those novels which contains gems that deserve to be highlighted and remembered forever. There is so much wisdom packed into its 374 pages that it requires savoring and slow reading. Ms. Haji ensures that her readers do just that by jumping between characters and in time, as Jo’s family history is slowly revealed to her. Each story builds upon the last, until the reader, and Jo, get the full picture.

Compassion, faith and empathy are three of the main themes, which becomes extremely important in the context of post-9/11 life and the subsequent War on Terror executed by the U.S.  As Jo struggles to find her identity in light of the new information about her parentage she receives, her struggles mirror the reader’s as we all struggle to make sense of the new world into which we were plunged after the attacks on the World Trade Center. What makes The Sweetness of Tears so powerful is the fact that the U.S. is not portrayed as the heroes. Ms. Haji does not shy away from the abuse of prisoners in places like Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, nor from the mental trauma such actions have on soldiers and contractors who witness these situations. Rather, she challenges the reader to view such proceedings from the Iraqi/Pakistani/Afghan perspective. It is a powerful lesson.

The Sweetness of Tears is not perfect. The jump between narrators is confusing, made more so by the fact that often the context in which the character’s story occurs is nebulous and not clearly defined. The reader struggles to understand the time frame in which the individual story is occurring. For example, Jo only hints at the actual 9/11 attacks. It is not until she finally discusses her employment requiring security clearances and background checks where the reader understands that she was still in college during the attacks and that her role as an interpreter would be put to use in the War on Terror. Similarly, Partition, the Vietnam War and other culturally significant events are mentioned after the fact. Keeping one’s bearing in the novel proves difficult at times as a result.

In spite of its weaknesses, The Sweetness of Tears remains a beautiful story of empathy and compassion, proving that two fundamentally different cultures can live together peaceably. It is a lesson everyone can and should learn, if only to help prevent more conflict in this conflict-laden world of ours.

Thank you to LibraryThing‘s Early Reader program for my reading copy!

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