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book review

Sonia Saikaley is the author of the novel “The Lebanese Dishwasher.”

Five years after Amir landed alone in Canada, he is still washing dishes in a Lebanese diner. He has come to hate the work, but inertia and a fear of the new have bound him to the treadmill. The foamy dishwater recalls teenage swims in the sea near Beirut – "the white waves pushing against me." Augmenting the joy of frothing waves were young men in Speedos, "chests and legs covered with hair. We're Lebanese, after all." Amir rejects the trend for body shaving. His "bush" of chest hair is a mark of character.

Cut to the war-scarred Beirut of childhood, and little Amir stumbling in the stairwell of his apartment house, landing with his hand against the crotch of an ascending man. Readers who catch the drift of the Speedo-ed swimmers will register the penny's decisive drop here. After his mother berates him for talking to strangers, Amir fondly recalls the moment of contact and his hope of touching the friendly man "down there again."

Thus begins Sonia Saikaley's fractured tale of forbidden desire. Amir may be surrounded by the liberating vibe of Montreal, but his cultural template remains Lebanese, the sex and gender roles entrenched. When he accepts a dinner invitation to the home of a middle-aged fellow diner employee, the man crudely boasts of his control over his cowed, kitchen-bound wife. Amir is repelled, but it's a private response he cannot say aloud. A more pressing matter at the meal is Amir's spontaneous affinity for the anagrammatic Rami, the host's nephew, whose fingers press far too suggestively against his own as the men pass around an after-dinner hookah.

The tale is structured as a seesawing chronicle of Montreal present and Beirut back-story, chapters alternating from the adult Amir's voice reporting and reflecting on his life, to the Beirut boy revealed by candid omniscience. Twelve-year-old Amir (skeptics be damned) is decidedly gay. Saikaley's all-knowing third-person depiction takes us inside Amir's callow turmoil, his helpless and confusing recognition of the homoerotic among Lebanese men.

A neighbour in the Beirut apartment house turns out to be a pedophile. Saikaley has the courage to show not only Amir's bewildered attraction to the man's sly initial advances, but also his surging desire for the man as he masturbates afterward. We feel equally the innocent pleasure and the ominous risk.

Cut forward again to Montreal. Confusion and fear are still Amir's sexual default setting. His girlfriend Denise is an increasingly untenable cover for the growing affection and lust he has for Rami. As we learn more about the years in Beirut, Amir's churning emotions and erotic desperation emerge as normal responses. His boyhood was a gauntlet of repression. The predatory neighbour made it become a nightmare. Will Rami be the catalyst for a long-delayed liberation?

Amir's tender-to-fierce voice and his inner and external worlds (including the daily burden of war in Beirut) are fully realized. Secondary characters are sharply etched, in particular Amir's parents, who take tough love to the point of cruelty, and his gentler grandparents, whose country house becomes a refuge.

Saikaley tends to bridge her chapters with a repeated device, ending one chapter and starting the next with the same image or action – Amir's hand shaking as he turns a doorknob, for instance, or his enjoyment of a Lebanese meal. We note the underscoring of how past and present often feel inseparable, but the device wears somewhat thin.

Such lapses seem hardly worth mentioning. This compact novel is impressively encompassing. Saikaley's immersion into the psyche of a tormented young man is richly detailed, sometimes funny, occasionally shocking, always convincing. The story's violent climax and romantic resolution feel a little rushed, but they expertly stir the heart.

Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.

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