Chasing Shadows

Leila Yusaf Chung

Chasing Shadows
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Chasing Shadows

Leila Yusaf Chung

What happens when a Jewish man marries a Muslim woman in British Palestine in 1947? It’s against all norms in the Jewish and Palestinian communities, and bound for disaster.

Told in snapshots by two generations over 65 years, this is the story of Lavi, a middle-aged Polish Jew who is desperate to have children. He meets a young Palestinian girl, Keira, and renounces his religion to marry her. A few months after the birth of their baby girl, the Jewish state of Israel is created and the city of Akkah is no longer safe for Lavi and his young family. They settle in one of the refugee camps in Lebanon.

Eight years later, Keira, with her sultry beauty, attracts young men and becomes the focus of unwanted attention in the camp. Then one day she disappears, leaving behind three children and a baby of a few months. Ajamia, Keira’s middle daughter, takes up the story, telling of growing up in a Catholic orphanage run by nuns in pre-war Beirut and the early years of civil war. As an adult, Ajamia returns to Beirut determined to find out the truth about her mother’s fate and her sister’s demise, and to reconnect with her siblings and face her painful memories.

A debut novel of astounding force and compassion, Chasing Shadows is the story of Palestine’s trials and the loss felt across several generations. This is the truth no one wants to admit and the solution no one wants to voice.

Review

Chasing Shadows, Lebanese-born Leila Yusaf Chung’s debut novel, begins with Lavi, a Polish Jew, confessing to his doctor that not only is his wife infertile but also that he is finding her increasingly unattractive. Surprisingly, his doctor’s advice is to leave the country and find a new, younger wife, so Lavi flees to Palestine and does exactly that. Although the story opens with the comic, just as Lavi begins his new life the State of Israel is born, throwing the country into civil war. Lavi’s family is forced to move to a refugee camp in Lebanon where Keira, his young wife, disappears, leaving four youngsters behind. The children are not told what has happened, and are simply taught not to talk about their mother’s departure. Lavi and Keira’s middle daughter, Ajamia, picks up the story from there.

Chasing Shadows spans two generations and works to bring to light the reality, and longevity, of war. The plot unfolds through the multiple storylines of Lavi, Keira and Ajamia, with each narrative thread centred on loss – everywhere, families lose their homes and loved ones. The backdrop of the story is vivid and culturally diverse; as well as the birth of the State of Israel, the storyline moves through the early years of Beirut’s civil war and Iran’s 1979 revolution. Each clash of culture is a study in the nature of ethnic discrimination, shown through the quick segregation of cultural groups as conflicts begin. Yusaf Chung’s account of this devastation relies on stretches of political information, which at times feel overwhelming as each individual situation is perhaps not given enough depth. This might, however, be the author’s intention; the impression that war is chaotic and consuming is made clear through how despondent each character is to the devastation around them.

Yusaf Chung’s prose is sympathetic but uncomplicated; her style accomplishes an unromantic depiction of war that doesn’t lack in suspense.


Ella Mittas is a freelance reviewer.

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