Wild Mulberries by Iman Humaydan Younes

Wild Mulberries is not actually about mulberries. Nor is it about “home and freedom”, as the back cover suggests, nor even is it really about Lebanon. Iman Humaydan Younes’ second attempt at fiction leaves one grasping at metaphors as the life of young protagonist Sarah takes on the increasingly bad combination of symbolism and confusion. In contrast to Younes’ passionate, emotion-driven first novel, B as in Beirut, Wild Mulberries is a lonely, slow-paced story whose underwhelming sense of loss distances readers, instead of encouraging a closer look.

But surprisingly, looking closer is what Younes is all about. Her background in anthropology certainly comes out in her fiction, as both B as in Beirut and Wild Mulberries are centered around historical Lebanon, and focus on the often-strained relationships between people and their culture. After receiving her BA in anthropology at the American University of Beirut, Younes went on to pursue a master’s degree in the same field, concentrating on the “lost families” of the post-war generation in Lebanon.

Younes’ academic and personal experience with Lebanese culture is clearly not the source of the problem with Wild Mulberries. Her depiction of 1930s village life is fascinating and thorough, from the high-ceilinged, old-style haara (a mansion, in essence) to the meticulous silkworm-raising process that is the lifeblood of ‘Ayn Tahoon, Sarah’s village. It is the Gone With The Wind setting of Lebanon: beautiful, harsh, romantic, self-conscious.

In short, it has all the characteristics that one wishes Sarah — the daughter of a cold, well-to-do shaykh whose livelihood depends on the outdated silkworm industry — would possess. We watch her as she morphs from a lonely, frustrated adolescent to a disenchanted adult, though the change is barely perceptible. In an attempt to capture the full effects of Sarah’s quiet, sullen musings, Younes’ “textured, lyrical prose” comes off as deadpan and monotone. At times, however, this tactic is appropriate, and there are sections in Wild Mulberries where Younes’ style of writing perfectly conveys Sarah’s careful, sad thoughts:

“I want to leave the haara, to fly like the jasmine branches and the walnut tree’s leaves,” Sarah laments, in response to her recently-broken leg. “This is how I can escape my body’s cocoon, the pain of my leg, and fly … Things happen to us that we don’t ask for, like when we ask for rain and it comes weighted down with mud.”

Yet besides her strong desire to leave the haara, there is little else that is convincing about Sarah’s personality. Her overbearing, loveless father and rebellious brother are enough to drive any teenager into an angsty fit, but when it comes to her other longings — such as the burning desire to find her long-lost mother — there is simply an absence of genuine emotion.

Younes manages to accentuate two themes in Wild Mulberries that, despite the spare, detached style, come through with passion: fear and sexuality. Only when Sarah or other characters are in either of these emotional states does the novel take on a convincingly aggressive tone, plunging their relatively muted actions into anxious turmoil. For once, the characters truly become characters, quirky and affected and alive. Sarah’s aunt Shams, for instance, is in a perpetual state of fear, tucking her belongings away like a packrat; the overly sexual neighbor Muti’a makes the women of the haara at once jealous and comforted by her expressive singing; Sarah herself is consumed by lust whenever she is near her friend Karim, and becomes deeply sexual in the presence of water.

“A warm drop of water falls and melts slowly, drawing a moist, zigzagging line on my skin,” she says on the first page; later, she observes the women of the haara as they drink water while at work: “a few drops of cold water fall on the woman’s chin and drip down onto her neck, drawing a line that passes through her cleavage. A short and sudden “ah” escapes from the woman, followed by a little laugh.”

It is passages like these that make Wild Mulberries beautiful at times, leaving me wonder why Younes had not written the entire novel like this. She is capable, she is knowledgeable — but too cautious. Every time the reader is drawn in deeper, Younes pulls away, retracting back into her unaffected prose. As the story progresses, we discover less and less about Sarah’s character as she becomes increasingly closed off, begging us to ask the same questions Sarah does of herself towards the end of the novel: “Why at this moment, the moment of return, is there still a lump lodged somewhere between my heart and my mouth? … Why don’t I feel certain of anything? How far are we from the image of what we want to be?”

Younes could have achieved much more with Wild Mulberries had she pushed the metaphorical envelope and let her characters express themselves. There was a strong disconnect between actions and motives, as the latter was simply not present. Why did Sarah’s half-brother hate the shaykh so much? Why was Sarah so intrigued with her mother, whom she admitted she didn’t even remember? Why was Muti’a such an important influence on Sarah’s life?

So many unanswered questions, but the point is, Younes makes one care. The story and characters of Wild Mulberries are beautiful enough to warrant curiosity, but they are simply too much to cram into such a slim volume. Younes dedicates pages to a single moment in time — the water droplet incident, for example — but breezes over what turn out to be entire years of Sarah’s life. Perhaps Younes needs to answer her own questions when it comes to pushing herself and her writing: “Why do I go so far and still not see it? It is inside me; why do I close my eyes to it?” I think we would all like to know.

RATING 5 / 10