Excising ghosts through the language of trauma propels PEN/Faulkner Award winner Azareen Van Der Vilet Oloomi’s important new novel through a deeply introspective monologue that will satisfy some, horrify others and leave the rest of us looking from the outside in.
If that sounds like a mouthful, it’s because it is. It’s not just that “Savage Tongues” is a cerebral read, — it is that, too — it’s that Arezu’s reasons for confronting a past two decades gone is indeterminate even to her: Is she banishing or bargaining with the pain of abuse that drips from nearly every page?
Twenty years ago, Arezu was a 17-year-old Iranian American going to Spain to spend the summer with her estranged father. He never shows at his apartment and instead sends as surrogates a weekly allowance and the care of his step-nephew, Omar, a 40-year-old Lebanese man. Through the early summer, a tortuous affair develops, ultimately scarring Arezu just as she is crossing the threshold from teen to adult.
Twenty years later, Arezu has inherited the property and — through language fraught with her own internal conflicts — finds herself “returning to one of the ugliest episodes of my youth: that strange, wild summer I’d spent in this moonlit city of salt and gulls and palm trees, on this dark and playful coast, living in my father’s vacant and abandoned apartment.”
Returning with Arezu is her best friend, Elle, an Israeli-American scholar passionate about Palestine. Together, they attempt to articulate expressions of abuse, eroticism, suffering and healing while simultaneously questioning, “How does one document in language the experience of pain so tantalizing that it refuses the fixed nature of words altogether?”
Yet in this novel, words are the main conveyance of those expressions. Largely eschewing plot and other narrative conventions, the story progresses through inner revelations, leaving the reader only brief gasps within a claustrophobic tale, as when Arezu details a racist and violent attack on her brother, or snippets of Elle’s backstory and Palestinian causes.
Those who have lived through abuse will find either solace or torment in the pages of this revealing novel. Others will see understanding — a beginning comprehension of the attempt to voice the excavation of profound pain.