From news reports to charity appeals, highlighting the plight and hardship of Syrian children has become a way to get the Western public interested in the civil war that’s divided the country for the past three years.
Sumia Sukkar's first novel, The Boy from Aleppo who Painted the War, aligns with this trend though in a much more moving and effective way than any reportage can achieve. “Fiction raises awareness by creating well-rounded characters in a situation, bringing to life the pain and suffering. I aimed to bring to the surface the cry for help from the heart of the Syrian war, hence, raising awareness”, the author explained in an email interview.
We meet Adam, the 14-year-old narrator who lives in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and the object of a bloody military confrontation since 2012, just days before war breaks out. Adam likes painting, Adam likes his older sister Yasmine, and Adam likes watching American movies. Adam doesn’t like noise, Adam doesn’t like when people shout at him and Adam really, really doesn’t like when things get in the way of his established routine. Yet Adam’s life, pre-war, although seemingly comfortable, wasn’t fully sheltered: he lost his mother to an unnamed illness and he suffers from Asperger’s syndrome.
Of Algerian and Syrian descent and raised in London, Sukkar was inspired by her own relatives and their experiences of the war to write The Boy from Aleppo. “Most of [Adam’s] family members are based on my family members and my memories of them from when I visited Syria. From there, the characters wrote themselves, depending on the situation they were in”, she remembers.
By her own estimate, “more than 50% of the book is fiction”. The rest is based on real stories she has heard and been told.
For the character of Adam, Sukkar “did countless months of research and went to Autism foundations and met autistic people”. She uses the three main areas of difficulty for Asperger syndrome sufferers, i.e. social communication, social interaction and social imagination, as well as the characteristic love of routine, special interests and sensory difficulties (as described by the National Autistic Society) to construct an effective story.
Electing to have a young Asperger sufferer for narrator works because it highlights the sheer absurdity of war. First person narrators are by nature unreliable, yet Adam’s very condition, his difficulty in reading social signals, make the tale more poignant and believable. When an adult narrator would rationalise, when an adult narrator would hide part of the truth so he can better deal with it, Adam just describes and never hides his lack of understanding. “I wanted to portray this horrid situation through the eyes of a delicate and innocent young man. I wanted to rid Syria of judgement and show it through a pure mind. Syria deserves this much”, Sukkar says.
Most of the book’s events, from the happiest to the most horrific, ring true. Thanks to Adam’s creativity and imagination, Sukkar tells a story of war through two key senses, smell and vision, making reading her novel a realistic and vivid experience. For example, Adam discovers that the house next door is used to store cadavers through the stench emanating from inside the building, invoking a more horrific reaction in the reader than any straight description would.
Although Adam’s brothers are siding with the Syrian opposition, this isn’t a political tale. Adam repeatedly expresses his surprise that the two fighting sides are so hard to differentiate, when encountering them in the street for instance. By choosing to remain above the political debate, Sukkar develops a novel which talks of the horror of modern warfare and which anybody, no matter their location or their life experience, can empathise with.
I have been reading a few first novels for this blog and so far, The Boy from Aleppo has been the best written. It is also the only one whose author studied creative writing at university, making Sukkar a poster woman for how important it is to train in a discipline that many like to consider intuitive. The course enabled the author to find her voice. “It helped me know my strengths and weaknesses. This influenced the writing of my novel. I learnt many things that I have implemented. Taking a creative writing course helped me transfer my thoughts and ideas into a novel”, Sukkar explains.
Next, she is planning to do a master’s degree in creative writing and publish a sequel to The Boy from Aleppo. But before that, she’s started another, very different novel. I can’t wait to read it.
A complimentary copy of The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted the War was kindly provided to me by Eyewear Fiction for the purpose of this review.
Exclusive email interview with Sumia Sukkar on 21 March 2014.