Title: Sometimes It Snows In America
Author: Marisa Labozzetta
Publisher: Guernica Editions
Release Date: October 1, 2012
Source: E-galley received from publisher via NetGalley
Summary from Goodreads:
What happens when a "princess" from Somalia comes to America?
Combining fable, storytelling, and the grubbiness of harsh reality, Marisa Labozzetta tells the story of Fatma, a young woman from a storied family in Somalia. Brought to the United States as part of an arranged marriage, Fatma must undergo losing her child, drug addiction, abuse, and prison before coming out the other side. A tale of someone who never gives up, no matter how bleak her prospects. A novel that allows hope to shine even in the darkest hour.
First of all, I have to thank Guernica Editions for giving me the opportunity to review this book! I saw it listed on NetGalley, and given my attraction to novels set in other countries, I was immediately intrigued by Fatma and her Somalian/Kenyan/Arabian background. This is my first ARC review and I was eager to dive into it.
...it was not as great as I wanted it to be. And trust me, I so BADLY wanted it to be awesome.
Let me start with the good news. This is not a novel that drags, or bores you. Fatma's dramatic life history encounters everything from arranged marriage, to miscarriage, to attempted murder and alcoholism. This is, at its core, a book about fighting against the odds and coming back from the brink--and Fatma certainly does a lot of that. The story keeps you engaged simply because it never slows down.
I also learned a lot about Somalian and Kenyan history from this novel. It is historical fiction--Fatma is supposed to be the niece of the real-life former dictator of Somalia, Mohamed Siad Barre (he has a different name in the novel, likely because Fatma is a fictional character unrelated to the real Barre...but a Wikipedia search made it pretty evident that that was who he (and she) were supposed to be). This was an interesting perspective on Somalian Communism and the Somali Civil War. This is why I love books from other countries--because I am a huge nerd and LOVE learning new stuff when I read.
Another thumbs-up goes to the ending. Labozzetta switches tenses from past to present, which makes the whole feel of the ending much more hopeful than the darkness of the rest of the novel. And she manages to tie things up enough that you feel satisfied, but still leaves unanswered questions so that it doesn't feel too "neat". One of my favorite ways for a novel to end.
But now the bad news.
I had two main difficulties with this novel: the distant point of view, and the lack of significant detail. The novel was told in the third person POV. I thought so much of Fatma's character was lost in the story, because her perspective never seems to be accurately conveyed. I know first-person POV is not to be chosen lightly by an author, but in this case, I think it would have been warranted. Fatma is a Somalian princess, raised in Kenya, with a Saudi Arabian mother, and she moves to America in an arranged marriage at the age of 12. Westerners (the presumed primary demographic for this novel) are not going to be able to naturally comprehend what she is thinking, feeling, doing given this unique African/Middle Eastern background. A well-researched first-person POV could have helped that. But instead, Fatma's story is told seemingly from a distance, with surprisingly little dialogue from Fatma herself. (Every time she spoke a sentence, I felt like I was hanging on to it--"I FINALLY heard her voice!") As a result, I often felt like I didn't understand why she made certain choices, or felt certain feelings. As a reader, this was extremely frustrating.
As for the lack of detail--this book takes place over a period of 35 years in Fatma's life. If a book is going to tackle such a large portion of someone's life story, I think there is a responsibility to give each part of it the level of detail and explanation that such an epic scope requires. Unfortunately, I don't think this can be well done in 300 pages, as Labozzetta tried to do here. There were some extremely important periods in Fatma's history that felt very glossed-over. Without going into spoiler territory, there were events related to her childhood, her son, and her marital life that were described in a surprisingly small number of pages. One terrible event was described in exactly ONE sentence before the story moved on to the next chapter. Not only was this confusing time-wise (I would often lose track of what year Fatma was in), but it made events feel abrupt, and as such I don't think I absorbed the emotional impact from them that Labozzetta was hoping for. It was clear that Fatma was greatly shaken by these problems, but as a reader, I just didn't get enough detail to fully connect with her at those points. Paired with the distant perspective mentioned above, this was BEYOND frustrating, especially in a novel that is so steeped in violent, life-shattering events.
So, overall--I think this book has a wonderful story behind it. It's sad and violent, but tells a tale of survival and persistence that could be truly inspiring. However, the impact of that inspiration was lost on me because of the distant perspective, choppy timeline, and lack of good detail. I so badly wanted to be let into Fatma's world, and to connect with her, but I never got that chance. This book needs a first-person POV and at least 200 extra pages of detail--then it could really do Fatma's story justice.
Anyone else read this ARC--what were your thoughts? Any other good recommendations for books that touch on East African history?