This review first appeared on the international e-zine Various Artists

Review: The Boy from Aleppo who Painted the War by Sumia Sukkar (Eyewear Publishing, 2013)

With its relentless accumulations of violence and random atrocity, it’s tempting to think that, from time to time, Sumia Sukkar is pushing at the bounds of plausibility in this, her debut novel. Even the briefest of surveys of the video footage which continues to emerge from the conflict in Syria, however, suggests that the mutilations, torture, street executions and other horrors described and/or alluded to in the narrative are no exaggeration. As we are reminded throughout, in fact, the tragedies endured by the main characters constitute only part of a much larger story in which an entire country is being torn apart for reasons which, to many, remain chillingly unclear.

The central narrative of The Boy from Aleppo…, then, revolves around and is, for the most part, narrated by the eponymous boy: a teenager with Asperger’s called Adam who lives in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo with his father, his three brothers and his sister Yasmine. The family is recovering from the loss of Adam’s mother – who has died in circumstances which are only hinted at – as the conflict on the streets around them begins to escalate. What has been passing for ‘normality’ begins to disintegrate: power cuts, food shortages, water shortages parallel the rapid escalation in tension as it becomes evident that Adam’s siblings are themselves becoming embroiled in the conflict. Abrupt crisis follows abrupt crisis until even the tiniest glimmer of hope seems to have been extinguished – or in Yasmine’s words as reported by Adam: “The city is in ruins, we are now stripped of everything and the only things surrounding us are Pillars of Faith.” From this nadir point, the narrative evolves through a series of carefully sequenced episodes and encounters to reach a resolution which is as humane as it is unexpected.

Perhaps the greatest strength of The Boy of Aleppo…., however, is the sustained and engaging narratorial voice. Able to ‘see’ emotions as colours and interpret the world and those who inhabit it through a spectrum of moods and atmospheres, Adam has an old-beyond-his-years logic which often comes to sound like wisdom as he does battle with the routine-shattering events around him, attempting to make sense of not only those events, but also the sometimes – to him – unpredictable reactions of his family and neighbours.

The activity of painting and a cat called Liquorice are his solaces – even though the cat comes to cause him moments of anxiety and his own paintings depict scenes from the war with the same unflinching quality as Sukkar’s prose – and his momentary, fragile memories of happier times offer a poignant counterpoint to the grotesque discoveries he makes as he comes of age in an age when, as Yeats had it, ‘all changed, changed utterly’.

Telling the story of a peculiarly vicious and cruel conflict from Adam’s perspective also has the advantage of allowing Sukkar to bring the war in and out of focus (at least while Adam still has space in his mind for other things), which means that the graphic images of human damage are surrounded by an implicit ‘darkness’ in which who knows what else might be happening to other people. Indeed, it is only when the focus sharpens – in those few chapters voiced by Adam’s sister Yasmine – that the novel loses some of its repressed energy: in these passages, it’s almost as if Sukkar herself is losing confidence in the ability of her principal narrator to bear the weight of the story when, in fact, Adam’s voice has already proved more than adequate to the task.

This, though, is a very minor qualm about a novel which delivers a portrait of life during wartime which is both deeply discomforting and deeply compassionate. That the conflict which constitutes its setting is still going on obviously gives the novel a particular topicality – but the significance of this book extends far beyond mere newsworthiness. (Tom Phillips)