Readers, what’s one book that’s made you want to learn more about another culture?
While one can never know the true depth of a culture from reading just one novel, Bride of the Sea by Eman Quotah offers a rarely seen intimate portrait of life in Saudi Arabia through the eyes of her characters, Muneer, Saeedah, and Hanadi, over 40 years.
Quotah tackles heavy topics, such as parental abduction, women’s rights in patriarchal societies, how one can lose their identity when separated from their culture, and the mental toll of being estranged from family by choice and through force. The richness of Quotah’s writing, her attention to Jidda’s setting, and the detailing of the messiness of her characters’ life drew me in as a reader. However, I couldn’t help feeling as if there was a considerable chunk of Saeedah’s story missing and a lack of a climax when I turned the final pages of Bride of the Sea that kept me from truly loving this book.
The fact that Quotah’s story was an #OwnVoices narrative was apparent in how much attention to detail was paid in scenes where the author shows the transplanting of Muneer and Saeedah from their lives in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, to Cleveland, Ohio. For example, I loved the scene where the young couple is trying to learn to cook and spend “a month’s rent on phone calls to their mothers” to get cooking tutorials.
These scenes were relatable and drew me in since they reminded me of learning to cook family recipes over the phone from my parents doing my college and graduate school days. The same is true of Quotah’s attention to the mental strain put on Hanadi as she forms her identity and works through the trauma of being abducted and becoming a mother and reunited with her father. This deep dive into the characters’ emotions is where Quotah shines where Muneer and Hanadi are concerned.
Saeedah’s character, though, never feels fully formed compared to Muneer and Hanadi. As honest and plausible as these two’s actions feel, Quotah seems to skirt around what motivates Saeedah to abduct Hanadi and keep her away from her family for over seventeen years. There are moments when readers are given glimpses of Saeedah’s erratic behavior. But, the lack of a first-person perspective for this character leaves the narrative feeling disjointed and keeps the story from ever climaxing.
For instance, when Muneer is in Jidda looking for Saeedah and Hanadi, I was invested in his quest because I was shown why he wanted to reunite with his family. Even Hanadi’s choice to reunite with Muneer in Jidda and the subsequent fallout in her life makes sense because I heard her reasoning in her own voice. Saeedah’s choices, on the other hand, are a mystery to me because she’s never given a chapter to explain herself, and her inner dialogue is shielded from readers. Everything we know about this character comes to us filtered through other characters’ perspectives of her.
After finishing this book, I was curious about this writing decision and researched Quotah’s process for developing her characters. In her author interviews, she pointed out that she was never really clear about Saeedah’s motivation for abducting Hanadi when writing her novel. This gave me pause since I was always under the impression that an author needed to understand their character’s intentions to help bring about the actions of their novel to life. While the motivation for Hanadi’s anger is obvious, hearing how Saeedah felt in this moment would have added another layer to Bride of the Sea. It also would have let out the tension in the narrative to give closure to Quotah’s story, in my opinion.
Overall, I am appreciative of how much care Eman Quotah took in writing Bride of the Sea. This is one of those rare novels where a reader comes to understand that every book is not meant to have a nice, neat ending. Yet, the lack of closure to Saeedah’s narrative and omission of her point of view from the novel left me thinking, “is that it?”
If I could suggest one novel that compliments Bride of the Sea, it would have to be Before We Visit the Goddess by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.
Divakaruni tells the story of three generations of women in a family: Sabitri, the matriarch of a family who grew up poor in rural Bengal and dreamed of going to school; Her daughter, Bela, who flees to America with her husband, who is a political refugee causing strain on her relationship with her mother; and Tara, Bela’s daughter, who feels the weight of the other two women’s choices as she tries to forge her own path.
Like, Quotah, Divakaruni explores mother-daughter relationships perceptively as she relays each woman’s story. However, where Quotah relied so heavily on others to tell Saeedah’s story, Divakaruni allows each woman to speak for herself within Before We Visit the Goddess. This balances out the narrative and allows readers to understand the frustrations each woman has with their mother.
Have you all read Quotah or Divakaruni’s novels?