As the bombs cease falling on Baghdad, and the world argues over an American presence in Iraq, the publication of Diana Abu-Jaber’s funny, thoughtful second novel, Crescent, seems uncannily appropriate. Although Abu-Jaber can’t have known when she wrote Crescent that history would take such a sudden, violent turn, her story of a love affair between an immigrant Iraqi professor, Han, and Sirine, an Iraqi-American female chef in a Middle Eastern neighborhood in Los Angeles, poignantly symbolizes reconciliation and making peace with the past at a time when the prospects could hardly seem more distant.
At first glance, Crescent appears to be yet another contribution to the burgeoning trend of culinary novels–the recipe-laden magical realism of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, Joanne Harris’s celebratory Chocolat or the macabre short stories in The Devil’s Larder by Jim Crace. And it’s true that the delicate aromas of roasted lamb, rice and pine nuts, tabbouleh and knaffea, a fragrant pastry of layered nuts, sugar and cheese, waft deliciously and authentically through the book, as does some lovely food imagery. A poet’s voice “ticks like a whisk in a copper bowl”; pouring “hot syrup over cold baklava or cold syrup over hot” is a “metaphysical” process; and Sirine’s boss, Um-Nadia, reads Sirine’s coffee grounds as part of the hiring process, seeing “sharp knife, quick hands, white apron, and the sadness of a chef. ‘Chefs know–nothing lasts,’ she told Sirine. ‘In the mouth, then gone.'” Clearly, Abu-Jaber feels passionately about food and has thought deeply about its philosophical implications. (In fact, she regularly writes restaurant reviews for the Oregonian in Portland, where she is currently writer-in-residence at Portland State University.) Just as Virginia Woolf’s classic work Mrs. Dalloway, with its nuanced look at human behavior amid the social upheavals following World War I, is more than a story about an upper-class woman preparing for a party, Crescent goes far beyond menu-planning.
The big issues here are exile, identity and the transformative power of true love, with Saddam Hussein a sinister, looming presence throughout the book, as Han wrestles with his losses under Hussein’s regime, and Sirine slowly comes to terms with her own mixed heritage–themes familiar from Abu-Jaber’s first novel, Arabian Jazz, which focused on an Arab-American family in upstate New York where Abu-Jaber, the daughter of a Jordanian father and an American mother, also grew up, in a town near Syracuse.
Like Woolf, Abu-Jaber does an admirable job of showing how small moments can nudge a person to take large actions, in the domestic as well as the political sphere. Typical is the accumulation of small events that seem to urge Han toward revisiting his home country, even though he knows he may be killed upon arrival. Abu-Jaber shows how patterns emerge out of life’s seeming randomness, naturally and gradually, in the midst of daily routines–the rhythms of Sirine’s cooking life, as she bicycles back and forth from her uncle’s apartment where she lives to her job at the small Lebanese cafe in Westwood–with the same mix of order and chance inherent in a recipe. People may think they’re jumping into something new, Abu-Jaber suggests, but they cannot escape their origins, whether they’re cooking, politicking, falling in love or living in exile. Just as a successful dish retains the flavor of all the original ingredients, she says, a happy life absorbs all its influences. Even a well-lived life’s questions are never entirely resolved, just like a good story.