Touch is a slim volume wherein each carefully-chosen word comes together to create cinematic imagery. Written by Palestinian author Adania Shibli, Touch centers on the youngest of nine sisters, and it is divided into five sections: colors, silence, movement, language, and finally, only a page long, the wall.
None of the characters in the story are named. Instead, we meet the girl, the mother, the father, the third sister. I have never been able to read a book without names; somehow a lack of names prevented me from connecting with the characters. Here, that was not an issue. To my surprise, the careful observations of this little girl had me looking through her eyes, and the pains of this unnamed little girl had me near tears.
While I am unable to read the original in Arabic, I sense that translator Paula Haydar has done a tremendous job. The words are spare, creating a powerful sense of tension and suspense, as only a few words serve as a vehicle for weighty emotions. The verbs are perfect, and the voice is strong.
This is not a book where I can read a sentence aloud and say, “Isn’t that beautiful?” This is a book where layers of imagery build up over several sentences, so that the reader is watching this little girl as a guest inside her home and her mind. This is a book that works the way my own memory does, where a happy memory, when put into words, turns out to be no more or less that the pattern of light on the floor, the purple of violets on the windowsill, and the fragrance of lotion on a loved one’s skin.
Shibli has created beautiful, poetic vignettes, small spaces in which a surprising amount can occur. A child learns to read, fights with her siblings, attends a funeral, overhears confusing news. A child swallows impossible sorrows and witnesses hidden beauty. I look forward to reading the lives of Shibli’s characters when they have a whole novel in which to grow.