Book Review: A Darkly humorous saga set in Post 9/11 America and the Middle East
When All Else Fails by author Rayyan Al-Shawaf begins on September 12th, 2001. It is the story of Hunayn, a luckless and lovelorn Iraqi college student living in Orlando, Florida, after having graduated from high school in Beirut. Hunayn’s life is upended by 9/11—but not immediately, and not in the way that he, fearful in the aftermath of the attacks, initially expects.
As America settles into its post-9/11, open-ended “Septemberland” phase (vigilant but also overly suspicious and even paranoid), many Arab and Muslim Americans are made to feel it’s no longer their home. With Hunayn, who muddles through a series of surreal episodes in Orlando and nearby Indiantown, the situation proves almost the opposite: Septemberland—so many of whose citizens think they have Hunayn figured out just because of his name or origins—comes to remind him of his most recent unhappy home, Lebanon, which he assumed he’d left behind. Now, having had his fill of disconcerting experiences, Hunayn returns to Beirut. At least he knows how to navigate life back there—or so he thinks.
It turns out that Lebanon is about to undergo political upheaval of its own: a former prime minister opposed to neighboring Syria’s control of the country is assassinated; subsequent popular protests compel the Syrian regime to withdraw its army; a spate of mysterious bombings terrorizes everyone; and Israel, another neighbor, launches a war on Lebanon in retaliation for an attack by a Lebanese militant group. Hunayn finds himself caught up in the maelstrom. And all the while, he watches from afar as Iraq, his fabled homeland and the owner of his heart, unravels in the wake of the US-led invasion.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a book critic whose reviews and essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Globe and Mail, LA Review of Books, Miami Herald, Minneapolis Star Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, The Millions, Toronto Star, Truthdig, Washington Post, and other publications. He lives in Malta. When All Else Fails is his first novel.
“When All Else Fails is a wonderful debut novel: profound, funny and a joy to read from start to finish. … Rayyan’s words are magical.” –Jim Powell, author ofThe Breaking of Eggs
“You’re Middle Eastern. You’re a college student in conservative central Florida… and 9/11 happens. Who knew coming of age as a Stranger in a Strange Land could be so fraught … and so savagely funny? Rayyan Al-Shawaf’s book offers a completely fresh take on our 21st century’s pressing questions. What’s identity? What’s home? What’s in the heart to always find a way forward? When All Else Fails is marvelous and questing and honest. I think it’s a book of the year … no matter the year.” –Charles McNair, author of The Epicureans, Pickett’s Charge, and Land O’ Goshen
“In When All Else Fails, Rayyan Al-Shawaf deftly melds on-the-ground experience with an extremely engaging and vivid fictional narrative. When All Else Fails is required reading for all who desire an entertaining and illuminating perspective on individuals who find themselves caught in the cultural and religious cross-currents of life in both America and the Middle East.” –R. P. Finch, author of Skin in the Game
“When All Else Fails”
by Rayyan Al-Shawaf
Interlink Books, an imprint of Interlink Publishing Group, Inc.
Fiction • 5 ¼” x 8” • 316 pages
ISBN 978-1-62371-977-7 • paperback • $16.00 (in Canada, $21.95)