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Review: Eamon McGrath’s Berlin-Warszawa Express, Ahmad Danny Ramadan’s The Clothesline Swing and Ami Sands Brodoff’s In Many Waters

Berlin-Warszawa Express

By Eamon McGrath

ECW, 104 pages, $19.95

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A Canadian musician finds himself strangely drawn by the siren song of post-Soviet Eastern Europe in Eamon McGrath's literary debut, a booze-sweat, punk-lyrical train ride from the Berlin Wall to points east. "Strange" because so much of this geography, outside urban centres, is in McGrath's description of a grey-concrete hellscape, decrepit in its neglect, though this depiction is in stark contrast to (some of) the people our narrator finds there. McGrath's prose is highly stylized: most of the events take place while inebriated, at night and the style is fit to match, taking on the self-aggrandizement of alcoholism. The novella is just the right length to avoid this becoming tedious. A binge can go only so long; even at this page count, there is a necessary self-critical turn during a drying-out period. What is Europe? What is it for? Berlin-Warszawa Express goes beyond literary-ruin porn: a wrestle with the European ideal from a region where it is most strikingly new.

The Clothesline Swing

By Ahmad Danny Ramadan

Nightwood Editions, 288 pages, $21.95

Nearly four decades after they fled Syria in 2012, an old man feeds his dying lover nightly stories in their creaking house in Vancouver's West End. This is One Thousand and One Nights with a difference: our hakawati (storyteller) is Scheherazade; Death is the swordsman at the door, in their bed, at their breakfast table; it is Scheherazade's king whose life must be spared. The merciful thing would be to let him go, but earthly love can be jealous, self-serving. What is a storyteller if no one will hear his stories? And so Death is kept at bay one more night through tales of lost loves, including Damascus, the ancient city Hakawati once viewed from a childhood swing, a city destroyed by the Assad regime. The death of the man with whom Hakawati once shared that city will mean a double loss. By turns sombre, fantastical, violent and tender, Ahmad Danny Ramadan's English-language debut is a gay son's conflicted love letter to Syria – a look on the present from a possible future.

In Many Waters

By Ami Sands Brodoff

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Inanna Publications, 320 pages, $22.95

"Just outside graceful, historic Valletta was this parallel world, several circles of hell with thousands of prisoners," a character observes in Ami Sands Brodoff's new novel. "Too easy to pretend these 'centres' crammed with humans didn't exist." It is easy to pretend Lyster Barracks does not exist because it is an enclosure: the prison-like detention centre in Hal Far, Malta, not only keeps migrants in, it also marks a kind of epistemic wall: it keeps minds out. When Lyster Barracks appears two-thirds through In Many Waters, the image is so startling because the enclosure runs contrary to the fluidity of this novel, which entwines a family full of secrets with a history of Malta's clandestine Jewish community with the story of Libyans fleeing the Gadhafi regime. My biggest criticism of this book is on time: a few inconsistencies in one timeline undermine the novel's realism, which is unfortunate because this is the kind of story we need right now, one that disrespects borders.

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