Review: The House of Youssef by Yumna Kassab

On first glance, the most striking thing about The House of Youssef is its structure. It is composed of four parts. The first two – Motherland and The House of Youssef – are composed of dozens of micro-stories, each barely two pages. What are these? They are too brief and subtle to be short stories. They put me more in mind of poems, or, as suggested by the book’s cover, of paintings. They reminded me of Vermeer, beautiful, domestic and mysterious, or the aloof suburb-scapes of Edward Hopper. They are frozen scenes, photos, still lives. The second two parts, Homing and Darkness, Speak, are longer form confessionals, one from a father longing to return to Lebanon but always finding reasons not to, and the other from a mother to her youngest daughter.

Even though each story centres on unique characters (there are some cross-overs), they are all part of what is essentially the same narrative. A couple leave their village in the Lebanese mountains in the 1970s. They arrive in Australia and have children. The father works in construction. The parents want their sons to find good work and their daughters to find good husbands. Inevitably, their Australian children rebel against the traditionalism of their parents, who in turn fail to understand the world their children are growing up in. The parents worry about gossips and dying alone. Some long to see the old country again.

Set against this overarching narrative are variations on the theme. In The Ring, Bilal proposes to his white girlfriend with his mother’s ring, but it’s not big enough for her. In Dead Ends, Khaled worries he will never escape his job at Macca’s. Violence lurks in every cul-de-sac. Police turn up to arrest a man in Unit 101 where a woman is dead. Mohamed has killed his wife and put her in the pantry in Births, Deaths, Marriages. In the 20-odd stories that make up The House of Youssef, a family slowly collapses. The details are unique, but the story is the same. These are tragic tales that are hard to read. They gain their power through repetition and layering. The writing is almost perfunctory, looking upon these families with a dead-eyed stare.

I can’t say I enjoyed this book very much, but I was impressed by its intensely claustrophobic mood, so extreme is its confinement to the domestic spaces of these families. When a beach appears in Darkness, Speak, light floods onto the page, although of course I should have been wary of the devastation to come. These are stories about the intense dislocation of migration. The children can’t understand their parents’ longing for the world they left behind, with its tight-knit families and community, language and religion, and the parents can’t understand their why their children so throw themselves into the individualist, consumerist culture they are growing up in. Two generations from two cultures are separated an almost unbridgeable gulf, and often they fall into it.

If there is anger in this book, it seems to be directed at the injustices migrants experience on arrival in Australia. The racism, the islamophobia, the everyday cruelties of the schoolyard and the suburban shopping strips. In 9/11: Before and After, a man tells how he changed after that fateful date. In Burning the Flag, a girl watches American and Israeli flags being burned on the TV. But this book rarely gets so overtly political. There is little resistance, but there is endurance.

Likewise there seems to be some condemnation of the intensely patriarchal culture the parents bring with them from the village. We are told in an explanatory note that parents are titled from the name of their oldest son. In some stories, daughters go completely unnamed. While sons have the pressure and crushing expectation of supporting a family, daughters are expected only to bear children and create a household, and their mothers are often the most complicit in this subjugation.

But perhaps I imagined the anger, bringing to these stories my own prejudices and beliefs. This is a book without judgement. It wants only to present the very specific experience of these people at this time. I suspect, like a painting, these stories will reveal more the longer I look at them.

The House of Youssef is published by Giramondo Press.

Gay rating: not gay.

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