Reading Resolution: “Death is Hard Work” by Khaled Khalifa

7. A book written in the Middle East: Death is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa

List Progress: 22/30

For most people, living in a warzone is horribly mundane. Several years into the ongoing Syrian Civil War, the characters in Khaled Khalifa’s Death is Hard Work are utterly numb, with only flashes of rage and despair breaking through. It’s rare to see a war story told entirely, one hundred percent from a civilian perspective and away from any actual battles, and this opposition to adventure is a strength of the novel and also something that makes it quite difficult to read. This book, like death, can be hard work.

Estranged siblings Bolbol, Hussein and Fatima are brought together when their father dies. Despite being an outspoken rebel, he passes away peacefully of old age, leaving only the request to be buried in his hometown next to his long-departed sister. The siblings load his body into a minivan and take a journey that would have once taken a couple hours and is now stretched over days of checkpoints, interrogations, peril and bureaucracy. Their once-respected father has become a piece of cargo, and what should have been a tribute becomes a resented errand. In this Syria, death and the responsibilities of the living have lost all honor or awe, and there is nothing left but toil and inconvenience.

Death is Hard Work can feel like a slog, but in a way that feels very intentional and in parallel with their journey. A lot of the pages follow peoples’ backstories, the histories of the family before and during the war, and this scattered approach to storytelling can get frustrating at times. This novel fits into that strange space of feeling important to read, but not that enjoyable at all. I can see wanting to read more of Khalifa’s work in the future, but it would take a very specific headspace. 

Would I Recommend It: Maybe.

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