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Voices of the Lost by Hoda Barakat

Five letters that will never reach their destination, written by five unnamed people who come from an unnamed, war-torn country form the premise on which Lebanese author Hoda Barakat has based her novel Voices of the Lost. The letters form a chain as they accidentally fall into the hands of another migrant, inspiring them to write a letter themselves. Through the letters, the reader hears about stories of war, pain and betrayal. One undocumented migrant, scared of his home country’s secret police, writes to his past lover and tells us about his personal shortcomings as well as his tragic childhood. A woman write from the hotel room in which she awaits an acquaintance from decades ago and continents away. A man who escaped months of torture only by offering to torture others instead confesses his crimes to his mother. One hard-working refugee writes to her imprisoned brother hoping to be forgiven for crimes she never committed. One man seeks to reconnect with his estranged father by telling him about his deceased partner’s battle with AIDS.

Confessions, condemnations and pleas for forgiveness. The theme of being pitied at best, but usually unwanted in a new country is a central part of each story. All five characters are struggling to make ends meet – poverty in the diaspora being a further key topic of this novel. They live on the periphery, isolated and lonely. So definitely separate from their families, they do not even expect the letters to reach them. While the letters form the bulk of the story, they are followed by a second part. Five brief episodes offer a glimpse into the lives of the intended recipients, some of whom are filled with anger, others lost and confused due to the silence of their loved one. Finally, we are left with a note from the postman who stayed behind in a country falling apart in a civil war. He reminds us of the desire to and importance of knowing what happens to those we once knew.

Barakat manages brilliantly to make her characters come to life. Though each one is only granted few pages, their emotions, fears and hopes (or lack thereof) are palpable. Especially the second part, though short, was excellent. Rather than telling us everything about her characters she uses skilful suggestions to create a longing for closure that will never be fulfilled. Often – but not quite always – Hoda Barakat manages flawlessly to unite an exploration of character and individual destiny with a discussion of grander social issues. Some of the stories are loving, melancholic, poetic. Others graphic and violent, at times hateful. This of course renders some more readable, more accessible, than others. But that might just be one of the points Barakat tries to make: we get to pick and choose which ones to read, whose stories to like. We can enjoy the piece of writing whereas people in those positions face horrible realities. We can turn a page, but they cannot close the book.

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