At the time Adania Shibli’s first short book, Touch, appeared in 2002, the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif could already describe her as “the most talked-about writer on the West Bank.” We Are All Equally Far from Love, Shibli’s second book, has doubtless kept the talk lively. Touch was a mysterious bit of business, an impressionistic sequence of childhood memories recollected by a young Palestinian woman on her wedding day; the question of how the recollections fit together was as puzzling for her as for the reader. Shibli’s newest book is less cryptic and decidedly more insistent, consisting of eight short stories whose plots initially seem linked but soon disconnect one from another—just as Shibli’s lovelorn characters break up or fail to connect—until, as the final story begins, we learn that the preceding seven were a “subterfuge” to make autobiography read as fiction. However one takes this eleventh-hour mea culpa, each story is a variation on a theme, the burden of which is the difficulty of finding and sustaining love. Throughout, Shibli’s unadorned prose has the dismal sparkle of a returned engagement ring.
That “we are all equally far from love” is something the loveless perhaps need to believe, nor are they reluctant to disabuse those who might feel otherwise. At any rate, love here is a statistical possibility—something one might catch, like the flu—or an affliction overcome. Thus, one narrator approaches a woman on a park bench, attracted to her despite her lost looks and sagging breasts because he is desperate to feel something for someone, yet cannot muster a hello. An office worker writes to a consultant she doesn’t know and soon comes to dote on this stranger because beneath his cursory replies she detects “a touch of warmth.” After a visit with her dysfunctional family, a young woman ends up spending the night with a stranger, “the morning light . . . too weak to dry my tears.” On the other side of the love divide are characters casting what songwriter Laura Nyro once whimsically referred to as “farewell lovespells,” one woman sending her boyfriend packing with precious little fanfare—“it’s over” is her fond farewell—while musing on whether she had ever loved the man she now hates: “She couldn’t . . . recall a single moment of the love he was presuming.”
A poem that unfolds incrementally throughout the book, serving as each story’s lengthening epigraph, cheerlessly informs us that “every beginning is an end” and that no ending is easy “except when there’s no place left for love.” The endings, then, are hard because love is the Jello of emotions: there’s always room for some, like it or not. “What’s my mistake?” that office epistler ponders, “That I’ve started to love him? That I’ve told him I love him? That I don’t know him at all?” Of yet another, we read, “He left the sitting room, and she remained sitting to the left of nothing.” In the face of such amorous disappointments, these lonely hearts find no end of excuses: parents who model failed marriages; indifferent friends and siblings; movies and soaps promoting romantic delusions; the mercenary sexism of men who shop for wives with less care than they devote to picking out a new car, or women whose failure of imagination can equate marriage only with the fate of “the condemned and the handicapped”; men too weak or hairy or clumsy in bed to love, or women not pretty, rich, or virginal enough to keep. Although it may seem that love is a prize that cannot be won because the game has been rigged, Shibli’s characters have in fact stacked the deck against themselves. Like the final narrator, who confesses that “the me that is now me is diseased and has become unbearable,” these people don’t think much of themselves, and those unable to love themselves, as Erich Fromm observed long ago, cannot love others.
The critic Benjamin DeMott once observed that literature can tell us either what we don’t know or what we already know, and that it is the latter that is perhaps the more valuable gift. Nothing Shibli has accomplished here counts as news, but she has done well to remind us that sometimes when love falters, we need look no further for the reason why than the nearest mirror.