Review: Son Of Sin by Omar Sakr

At the end of Son Of Sin, the first novel of Omar Sakr, the protagonist Jamal makes a startling confession about his life:

I don’t remember most of it. I know, I know, you’ll say that’s crazy, but most of it is blotted out. I have these strange details, and details do not make a life: that’s what love and time are for.

I say this not to spoil the ending, but because the line feels essential to understanding what has come before. Son Of Sin is notable for its, not lack of plot, but a certain lack of narrative tension. Things happen, done to characters and by characters – those “strange details” – but much remains hidden – “blotted out” – for many reasons, key among them trauma. If love makes a life, it perhaps must also make a novel, and Son Of Sin is propelled by Jamal’s search for it.

Jamal Khaddaj Smith is in Sakr’s own description a “distant avatar” of himself. Son Of Sin is essentially a coming-of-age novel, although it extends further into adulthood than others of its genre. It begins during Ramadan when Jamal is 15, and therefore, for the first time, accountable for his sins. On the long summer evenings in western Sydney as he and his cousins wait to break the fast they do teenage things: muck around, cause trouble, flirt and hook up. His mother Hala shows up late. She left him and his older brother to be raised with his cousins until he was seven. Jamal is a quiet kid, recently taken to hiding in the corner and reading, which his louder relatives gently mock.

Actually before all that the novel begins with a letter from Jamal to his Turkish uncle, recalling a story that he told about about his spirit being “nudged out of his body by the foot of an angel”, going wandering about the “land of the living and the dead”. It sets the mode for the narrative, which feels disembodied, as if it’s roving through space and time and isn’t quite held to the same rules as us mortal beings. Jamal sometimes experiences similar moments of disembodiment:

He was always being called scattered, forgetful or lazy, and like anyone else he could be those things. Mostly, though, he was no longer there, his body emptied. He wondered if, in those moments, the angels stopped recording, but knew it was not so.

His body is a site of trauma and sin: the abuse it suffers from his mother Hala; the suspicious looks it gets from white Australians and other men; the desire it has for other men, “the ultimate taboo” that crowns “the tree of sin”. No wonder there is a yearning to escape it, a yearning that is also present in Sakr’s poetry collection The Lost Arabs, that desire “to resist definition, to be only what he wanted to be, when and as he pleased”. So there is tension, between Jamal’s body and his spirit, but of course this is a tension that can never be resolved. Not that he doesn’t try. Almost a decade later he goes looking for answers in Turkey, tracking down his absent father, and on his return to Sydney wrestles further with his desire and belonging, his education and aspirations marking him as separate from his family.

There’s a lot going on, a whole world really. Inevitably then, it does some bits better than others. I was particularly drawn to Jamal’s commentary on the Cronulla Riots, and the “look” between men that sparked it:

He’d heard the Aussie lifeguards had been staring at the Lebanese boys all day, making comments, making sure they knew they were being watched, pinned by a Southern Cross gaze … Jamal was no stranger to what a look could do. He’d been sitting on this couch late one night when he was struck by the same blend of query and threat: what the fuck are you looking at?

In the hyper-masculine world Jamal grows up in a look is violence. But he also comes to understand that a look between men can, equally as dangerously, be desire.

His desire will always be fraught. The end of the novel takes place immediately before and after the 2017 same-sex marriage plebescite. “He was glad on some level it would help,” Jamal thinks, “but it made no difference to his life, nor to anyone in his family”. Jamal shrinks from other’s looks, conflating being seen with being vulnerable. At his his most exposed Jamal thinks:

he’d been seen, really seen, in the midst of his want, and the shame of that was overwhelming.

And Son Of Sin is a very vulnerable depiction of queer desire – Jamal recounts excruciating, beautiful, and very horny moments of experimentation, rejection and elation. I laughed and shed a tear at the extremely messy and very real coming out to each other of Jamal and his three best friends have at a teenage birthday party.

Although there is poetry in it, Sakr’s prose is deft and mostly tightly controlled, although there are some minor annoyances, such as a reliance on telling us that a situation is funny, the novel version of canned laughter. But overall this is a heady mix of mundane and heavenly, the sins of the flesh and the yearning of the spirit.

Gay rating: 5/5 for queer characters and a bi protagonist, queer themes and graphic queer sex.

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