Touch is a compact, poetic and surprising book by West Bank writer Adania Shibli. Not so much a novel as a series of short vignettes, most of which are little more than a page long, unveiling the life of a little girl (unnamed) in a Palestinian family. It is at once beautiful and disturbing, with the realities of Palestinian life left almost untouched and unsaid but still heavily present in the background.
The book is split into five sections, each focusing on a different theme: colours, silence, movement, language, the wall. By far my favourite, perhaps because of its seeming innocence, is the first: colours. Though the theme is simple, each short piece focusing on some aspect of colour, Shibli covers a lot of ground: love, death, religion, family. These subjects are covered delicately, like here in a short piece about love or, as the girl calls it, evol:
“When something shiny appeared in the distance, it was the neighbour’s eyes. In the fields, his eyes were green.
The little girl lay down on the green grass and the neighbour got closer until he was on top of her. From behind, the blue sky enveloped him, and his eyes enveloped their own blueness.
He got so close that his features blurred, but their noses kept them from getting any closer. The two bodies were tangled together as one.
The neighbour was lying on the hard soil. In winter, the hard soil was muddy and flowed under their bodies. His eyes were brown...”
Though seemingly simple this piece reveals much about both love and how in the aspect of love we can take on a different perspective, how we can change in the eyes of those beholding us depending on context. The fluidity of love and the fluidity of identity are evidenced by the way the neighbour’s eyes change depending upon his context. This is typical of this book, which can give such a lot whilst seemingly saying little.
There is a lot of space in this book, a lot unsaid. It is a book which warrants multiple readings, not one which gives you everything in the first go. It is beautifully written, poetic, at times frustratingly obtuse and yet easy and compelling to read. If you enjoy books which lay everything out for you, which have a straight-line narrative which is easy to follow, then this is probably not a book for you. It is less a story and more a series of observations which, in themselves, reveal the story which lies beneath everything. A book for poetry lovers, which I am (fortunately).
In some respects Touch left me a little frustrated, I wanted more than the few pages and sparsely revealed narrative gave me. At the same time it was beautiful, absorbing, it made me think. I know that in a single reading I have barely scratched the surface of what it can give me. That in each little story there is a world of meaning, most of which passed through me. It is clever, but in a way which is inclusive: we are all like the little girl, seeing small snatches of life and making a narrative from it.
I am still unsure about this book. It is beautiful, poetic and strangely pure, but its complexity means that I’ve absorbed, and perhaps understood, only a fraction of it. But I know I will return to it, more than once, and on each reading it will continue to give and give me more. Isn’t that what great literature is all about?