A pregnant woman is on a business trip to an unnamed city. The city is a tourist paradise, but it also bears the scars of past crises in the form of bullet-riddled walls and half-constructed buildings. Students sleep on concrete floors, and in an alleyway lives a family of refugees—as the woman herself used to be. Among the tourists and exploited workers and half-wild children of the waterside district one night, she encounters a mother searching for her missing teenage daughter. This is clearly a long-term search, and tonight it ends: the mother throws herself into the sea. Something dies within the woman as she watches this unfold.
With The Singularity (Feminist Press, 2024), Balsam Karam, a Swedish writer of Kurdish origin, makes her English-language debut in an arresting translation by Saskia Vogel. It is a story of losses handed down from mothers to daughters and of the echoes that violence and displacement exert from one generation to another.
By collapsing many refugee stories into one overarching tale of loss, Karam spins a slim, three-part lyrical novel that follows the fate of two different families attempting to escape their devastated homelands. It is unclear if they are fleeing the same conflict, but there is a cacophony of echoes between their stories.
“The Missing One,” the first of the novel’s two primary narratives, follows the family that lives in the alley—the mother who will later throw herself into the sea, a grandmother, and three children—as they struggle to adapt to life without the lost girl:
I hope the children will one day take the other children’s hands and go elsewhere she says and starts listing the names of her remaining children so the sky and sea won’t forget them like they forgot and abandoned The Missing One.
Even before her suicide, the mother has largely drifted away from her remaining children’s lives. When she is home from her endless searching, they “seek her out, but not as eagerly as before . . . for fear of her disappearing they are not pushing as hard . . . nor turning her face towards theirs round smooth, right up close.” The family lives in extreme precarity from the hunger, cold, and predatory men of the surrounding city, but not even this can distract the mother from her loss, or her search.
The missing daughter exemplifies an epidemic throughout The Singularity of missing girls and women—sisters, cousins, daughters, friends. They are gone but emphatically not forgotten, and the voids they have left haunt the living and their descendants. The grandmother, who sits at the entrance to the alley to guard her remaining grandchildren, nurses her story of loss from long ago: the disappearance in childhood of her beloved cousin. She herself narrowly avoided the same unspoken fate:
I escaped by a hair, can you imagine? rthe grandmother says and moves in the darkness now deep and resounding across the alley; I made it out then, my darling, but I ended up here instead she says and lies face-down in the dust, saying nothing more.
The children live a life of neglect in the alley. Occasionally they are paid a visit “by the relief organization that says hello and how are you all then here you go and we’ll be back soon,” but generally they are kept alive by the disinterested kindness of a local greengrocer. They play, as children will, by collecting stones and piling them high. “If you stack your stones, you can build a hut and if you throw your stone at something, the stone will always win,” they tell one another, but later add, “unless it’s at water.”
Part two, “The Singularity” of the title, changes cast and location. The pregnant woman of the prologue is at home in a wealthy northern country. Her immediate family also consists of a mother, a grandmother, and three adult children, of which she is the youngest. The baby she is carrying has died in the womb, and the blow is a heavy one: “I come from a tradition of loss,” she tells the psychologist assigned to her. He speaks the language of medical risk, she the language of fighting a preordained tragic fate. She becomes consumed with identifying the moment her child died, and her theories range from the moment she saw the refugee woman leap to her death to before even her own birth, when other family losses set the pattern of grief.
Karam links these theories to the concept of the “singularity” in a black hole, explaining that “Inside a black hole is a place that is also a state.” Black holes are a recurring feature in Karam’s work: her first, as-yet-untranslated novel was titled Event Horizon. With this metaphor, the novel becomes more formally inventive, trading the tumbling sentences of the first half for long paragraphs, spliced by forward slashes, that alternate between the present loss of the child and the past loss of a homeland and best friend:
You use your hands to show how no space remains between bodies in the singularity / she breastfed you once, Rozia’s mother / eventually they occupy the same space, you say /
Collapsing the text like the black hole of the singularity marries form with function to compelling effect, though I remained unconvinced that the analogy of the singularity itself added much to the book; it smacked a little of the overreaching metaphors used in Hollywood movies as a shortcut to depth. Ultimately, metaphors are not needed here; with its sobering account of a lost future and revelations about the protagonist’s defining childhood friendship, “The Singularity” is frequently heart-in-your-mouth reading.
In “The Losses,” the third and final section, Karam takes us back to the protagonist’s childhood and youth as a refugee in the new country. The protagonist retraces the well-traveled ground of racist micro- and not-so-micro-aggressions, yet the stakes of the first two sections are lacking here. There are some striking scenes in miniature, surrounded by plenty of white space, but the anxiety Karam has cultivated earlier is replaced with cynicism about Western values and altruism—justified criticisms, but dramatically less compelling than what has come before.
The novel’s key achievement is in how it breaks the format of the multigenerational novel, with its well-worn progression from grandmother to mother to daughter. Karam is able to tell, in less than 200 pages, the multigenerational tale of two families in a surprising and nonlinear text of patterns and bleak repetitions, the rhythms of real life. The sea beats against the wall that holds it back from the city. Tourists come, go, and are replaced by others. The sun rises daily on the children in the alley, “as if the world were at a standstill and the days one and the same.”
Rootless lives, divorced from a purpose beyond staying alive, become a catalogue of monotonous repetition, of survival. The sun rises, then sets. The children of the alley are largely apathetic; only occasionally do they say of the tourists “I hope they choke on their own satiety.” Only occasionally does the protagonist recall, with anger, that: “None of your white friends have wanted to hear any of your memories from the war.” This imposed silence on her past experiences is one repetitive cycle that can be broken. She interrupts her friend’s nostalgic childhood tales with her own story of a little girl found in the rubble after a bombing: “What do you think about that? you say, and wait for him to respond.”
A refugee tale is always about the children, not least because they are the tellers. Parents and grandchildren flee their homelands, throw themselves into new countries where they have no power or social capital, where they speak the language haltingly and expose themselves to ridicule and invisibility for the sake of their children. Though Karam’s work casts an often-cynical eye over this “better life,” she is nonetheless aware that for the children, there is progress, there is movement. The children in the alley, after all their many Fridays, wake on Saturday morning to a new loss but also to new arrivals.
But to be an adult refugee is to always mourn a lost homeland. The grandmother in the northern country cannot progress as the children do. She asks to be buried in the old country: “she should at least in death be allowed to rest in the arms of her ancestors—this is all she wants now.”