Saturday, August 27, 2022

WITMonth Day 27 | A Bed for the King's Daughter by Shahla Ujayli

Note: This is another one I actually read (and reviewed) last year (in 2021), but hesitated to publish this critical review, seeing as the book is published by a small publisher and has largely flown under the radar. As I said previously: This year, I've decided to let my blog go back to being just that - MY blog. Anyways. Here's a not-so-thrilled review of a book that I didn't really get.

Confession: I didn't like this collection. It surprised me a bit, truly, but I just couldn't connect with the work. I didn't like the writing, I didn't like the supposed experimental nature/"surrealism", and I didn't like most of the stories themselves, which seemed to wash over me without leaving any sort of imprint. I actually read A Bed for the King's Daughter (translated from Arabic by Sawad Hussain) in two bursts, but forgot to set a bookmark and found myself rereading some of the stories, without even realizing it until I got to the story's end and went "wait, I read this already". This happened with three consecutive stories... rarely a good sign.

A Bed for the King's Daughter is a slip of a collection, a tiny book along the lines of Thirteen Months of Sunrise or a poetry collection. The fascinating translator's note addresses this rather bluntly, opening with quotes of "Too short. Too experimental. Not enough sense of place. Not Arab enough." that encompass the sorts of supposed limitations that prevented the collection from being published, per different editors. Hussain's note is extremely successful at showcasing Ujayli as a unique, talented voice, whose experimental short works are important reading for anyone trying to break free of ingrained expectations and assumptions. But this same (understandably glowing) endorsement ended up making me feel all the worse for not enjoying the collection. I didn't think that Ujayli's collection was any one of those quoted critiques, but I also just... didn't get it. 

There's certainly something special in Ujayli's writing, a little sing-songiness to how these stories flow, something that makes them a little ethereal and fairy tale-like (and indeed, a few of them directly reference or play with fairy tale tropes). I can see how this might be a very unique book, but that doesn't mean I enjoyed it; the writing grated on me within one story, and the tendency to end the stories on some sort of half-conclusion largely left me irritated. Short story collections often struggle in needing to find the balance between having a strong overall style, while also maintaining clear individual boundaries for each story (that is - individual stories ought to be memorable enough on their own). A Bed for the King's Daughter did reasonably well at having a unified tone without stories fully bleeding into each other, but none stood out either. I can remember only fragments from different stories, less than I might take away from a poetry collection of a similar length. 

Obviously not all books will click with all readers, but the briefness of A Bed for the King's Daughter made me all the more baffled by the collection. Some of the stories are barely a full page in length; they must want to say something, but they don't always seem to do something with their ideas. Or if they have a good message, they don't seem to have a particularly smooth wrapping for it. Take "An Incident in Town". Under a slightly different layout, this story would probably span just one page. It utilizes beautifully poetic language in its opening paragraphs, setting the stage for the town in question with eloquent descriptions of storefronts and children. And then... there are two additional paragraphs, one of which details what I can only describe as the story's "plot" in similarly poetic terms and the latter of which provides an almost whimsical/dry explanation for the previous paragraph. The conclusion is meant to draw together the different pieces of the story to a message about corruption, but it ends up ringing hollow. There's a tonal shift that is probably meant to invoke a wry understanding of the absurdity of the situation, but instead just left me scratching my head as to what the story wanted to do versus what it did.

Other stories left me similarly bemused. There are all sorts of topics in this collection - xenophobia, racism, war, violence, corruption, sexism - but they all feel a little empty. The closest I felt like I got Ujayli's style was in the extremely short "Lilith" (basically one paragraph long), which felt like it would have been at home in a poetry collection rather than a short story one. And maybe that's the point? Maybe Ujayli's greatest experimental contribution is her tendency to play around with form and stylistic expectations. But the moment I didn't particularly like the writing, it was inevitable that I wouldn't really enjoy the collection as a whole.

I can't especially recommend this collection, but I wanted to. I wanted to appreciate Ujayli's tricks and stylistic quirks. I wanted to appreciate the topics raised. I wanted to come away with something that I could hold onto from the collection, but I didn't. And so I sign this review with an uncomfortable shrug and handwave. I cannot say I liked this book, but maybe you will? Maybe you can even better explain to me what it is that I'm missing.

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