You ask me to tell you a story. “I will tell you a story.” I whisper, tears in my eyes, “but all I ask of you is to suspend your disbelief.” You ask me how to start telling a fairy tale. I tell you that it just starts.
“How does it end?” you ask.
“No one knows how any story ends,” I explain. “We only write the beginning.”
The happy family years were brief for Hakawati. For only a short period could he recall a time when his mother was truly present in the real world, when his family was what a family ought to be. A sunny, happy little room was where they lived in peace. There was a little balcony where his father built a swing out of some old clothesline for his mother.
When his family is forced to relocate, Hakawati’s mother begins a slow descent into something like dementia, while is father is increasingly kept away by “work.” Hakawati grows up recalling more of the aloofness of his father and the mercurial and cruel behavior of his erratic mother. He is able to find a measure of solace with friends. He even makes a special friend–someone with whom he slowly cultivates a deeper connection that leads to something like love. But when he comes out to his father one day, Hakawati’s father beats him terribly–beats the name of his gentle lover right out of his body. Months later, Kakawati’s one-time sweetheart is married to a woman; six years later, he is dead.
Staying with his family is not an option. Hakawati migrates to Egypt where he befriends a group of young men. They laugh and go out together and for a while, things are fine. But when they find out Hakawati’s preferences for men, their reaction is far worse than his father’s.
Despite the personal troubles and growing political unrest, Hakawati does find love. Together with the man of his life, they survive the constant battles that have turned a lush and green Syria into a battlefield. They escape to Vancouver, Canada, making a new life for themselves in a country so free and open, yet also alienating for its differences. As they grow old together, Hakawati begins to fear the impossible–outliving his lover. In an effort to steal more time away from the bony hands of death, Hakawati beings telling his lover stories. Every night, he murmurs tales to his lover. Every night, he staves off the inevitable for just a bit longer. Yet no story can keep the harsh reality of death away forever.
So that description is 200% more linear than this book. In fact, Hakawati and his lover are like the prefix and suffix and infix of every chapter, yet I think we only hear the lover’s name once. And Hakawati always appears in italics–which indicates to my inner linguist that it’s not necessarily a proper name, but maybe an epithet?
For all that it is a mishmash of events retold by Hakawati, The Clothesline Swing does not feel erratic, but more like a slow journey of discovery. And for me, this was an incredibly slow read. The plot isn’t necessarily difficult to follow. Again, the main overlying feature is Hakawati struggling to come to grips with his dying lover. However, this overarching structure is supported with the stories Hakawati tells, and it can be a challenge to figure out who the narrator is. In other words, I think this is a super (super duper) unreliable narrator.
I actually really enjoyed how Hakawati’s stories will flip-flop between perspectives. It was like a guessing game, and after you get through about the first half of the book, the same events may be recycled, but told through someone else’s eyes. It really kept me on my toes. The sad part is that these events largely take place in a part of the world being ravaged by war and even if it weren’t, Hakawati’s sexual orientation means there is going to be some strife at *some* points in his life. But the amazing part is that we get to see him fall in love with a boy for the first time. He first becomes friends when said boy stands up for Hakawati (generally seen as a wimp at school). They spend time together. There are shared laughs, shared experiences, shared lingering glances. Later in the story, we hear this same get-together, but told from the other boy’s perspective. On the page, we actually hear about this character’s death third-hand first, then we jump back to the falling-in-love with Hakawati; later still we are told the story of his death from his perspective.
Remember that this is but one little chunk of story being explored. There are several others like this. I loved how these same stories are told out of order and that they fold into each other time and again. It’s like the prose version of looking through photographs taken by different people who went to the same events, but the photos are thrown into a box, shaken up, and withdrawn one at a time and then the events are retold.
As for Hakawati and his lover…this felt far less defined. I kind of enjoyed how Hakawati’s is in the first person and it was interesting that the references he makes to his lover are consistently “you.” It makes sense, but at the same time, it made me wonder who the main character was supposed to be. As strong as their connection appears on page, I didn’t really feel a strong connection to their relationship. Which was kind of sad because Hakawati’s devotion to his lover creates the basis for this book. I think part of this distance is due to the presence of the Death character. I could never figure out if this was literal or figurative (there are references to both Hakawati and his lover actually interacting with Death, sharing a blunt with him, sitting with him at the breakfast table, etc.), and this character adds more layers to Hakawati’s story telling.
The big question I have, though, was the execution of the end. Unlike the rest of the story where thread after thread is folded back upon itself until finally the reader realizes there are just a handful of threads, but we see them at their beginning or middle or end, the ending has a distinctly stylistically different device. There are several repeated motifs of this mermaid and her male “costar” (for want of a better phrase). Not only is this the only place where the stories are about a mythical creature (all the others are more like fractured memories), this is the only part of the story that does a sort of deja-vu with the prose where iteration one starts with the mermaid in love with the man but the man spurns her, iteration two starts with the mermaid in love with the man and the man accepts her, iteration three starts with the man in love with the mermaid but she spurns him, and so on. And that’s slices between the 200-odd pages of Hakawati’s memory stories and his lover’s death…I’m sure it means something, but I can’t figure it out.
On the whole, this is a lovely amalgamation of memories and pure make-believe rolled into one book. There are sweet undercurrents of love cut through with desperation and shaped by the hard truths of growing up in a place where the old ways are still pushed on young generations. Despite the horrors of an authoritarian regime, the story portrays a surprisingly rich and diverse side of Syria as seen through the eyes of her wandering children.