[REVIEW] A Woman Is No Man, by Etaf Rum

A photo of the paperback classic edition of A Woman Is No Man. The cover is black and red and depicts the a silhouetted hand dropping a book into another hand.

(Buy this book here.)

This book is all about lovelessness, and I wasn’t really ready for it.

When Isra is 17, a man from New York comes to Palestine to marry her. She has hopes, dreams, and an overwhelming desire to be loved, but when she returns to the US with her husband her inner life is quickly crushed by having too many children too quickly amidst the realities of life as a Muslim immigrant in 90’s Brooklyn. Despite it all, her deepest desire is to love and be loved, even if it kills her.

The women closest to her are also led by love. Her daughter Deya wants to know if it’s possible. Her mother-in-law Fareeda refuses to hope that it even exists. All of their lives revolve around marriage–getting married, being married, trying to marry each other off. Unfortunately–marriage makes none of them happy or safe, and ultimately each woman has a different approach to how they handle this unhappiness.

It’s a strange and painful thing to live in a world that demands that women be soft, then does its best to kill us if we are. This book explores that conundrum deftly, but the conclusions it comes to are mostly sad, hopeless ones. These women don’t like themselves at all, and rarely like each other. Love is out of the question. The one character who manages to get out of the system is still too hurt by it to truly succeed. While the last chapter introduces new hope for Deya, after the trauma conga line that dances through the rest of the book I was too suspicious to be happy for her.

This is a simply written, fast-moving read that jumps through all three women’s thoughts over a period of about twenty years. When I finished it I felt… lonely. Ironically, I felt that way because that’s how everyone in the book seems to feel. It’s partly due to the oppression they’ve suffered as Muslim Palestinians, partly due to continuing trauma responses, and partly from their own choices. That all adds up to characters who are hard to like, but very easy to pity.

As far as this being a story of a Palestinian-American family? It is, in the same way that The Color Purple is the story of a Black American family and The Joy Luck Club is the story of a Chinese American family. Those weren’t happy, well-adjusted families with good stories and neither is this one. However much like those other books, A Woman Is No Man is a story of the trauma women are sometimes forced through in the name of culture and how they endure it. Like those books, I think it can be criticized for a very unflattering portrayal of men in the culture it portrays, although not necessarily an inaccurate one.

I can’t say I enjoyed this, exactly, but it was touching and emotionally provocative. It’s the sort of book that is empathy technology at its finest. It’s a perspective on love, gender, and unresolvable trauma from an Arab-American woman that doesn’t flinch away from hard truths or difficult moments.

Four stars and a box of tissues to A Woman Is No Man.

(Friends, Romans, fellow readers and generally beautiful people; hi. Thanks for reading this review, and I hope that wherever you are, you are loved or on your way to being so. If you want to read this book or more like it while supporting this blog, check out the Equal Opportunity Bookshop. This blog earns a commission for every book sold there, and Bookshop also donates a portion of their proceeds to supporting indie bookstores in the US. Whatever you do, read something good while you do it! Peace! )


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