Book Review / The House of Youssef by Yumna Kassah


“Although set predominantly within migrant communities, these characters and emotions could be true of many longer-term citizens. The cover image writes its own summary: suburbia, working class, blinds lowered over privacy and secret pain.” – Jan Allerton reviews The House of Youssef by Yumna Kassah


Yumna Kassah is a powerful writer, skilled at evoking with great economy, life events, passions and deep emotions. Although set predominantly within migrant communities, these characters and emotions could be true of many longer-term citizens. The cover image writes its own summary: suburbia, working class, blinds lowered over privacy and secret pain.

The major part of the book is an extended series of brief glimpses into significant moments in the life of one character after another. The characters are real, and the emotions of the event are strongly evoked, leaving me immersed in despair and anger, with rare moments of joy.

A poem sums this: “Her voice/when it speaks/it speaks of darkness.”

Mothers are featured in many vignettes, left with only the remnants of the little life they had once hoped for.

‘The Sunday Lunch’

A grandmother mildly protests her son’s distancing himself from her, and questions his need for a divorce. Then quickly she returns to the ‘normal’ of washing the dishes. This lonely scene emphasises the emptiness of her life without family and a pattern of customs to surround and sustain her.

‘The Wedding Day’

The description of the bride echoes the after-life of the mothers in the previous stories: “The perfection of waiting. It is a woman’s fare to wait.” The vignette sets up two young people brought together in an endless ritual for their wedding day. It is articulate and vivid in their inadequacies and fears and their sparse dreams of a good life, resigned to little hope: “They sit anyway.”

The majority of the characters are refugees or migrants, struggling with the very different customs and values of Australian suburbia.

‘Unit 101’

Here, life is limited by language and circumstance, and people with inadequate empathy.  With the loss of old values, they have been left a home and community life reduced by the mismatch of established customs and the version lived in the new country.

‘Twin Towers’

A young man finds his life transformed after 9/11.

“Who are you after it?” He asks himself.

“‘You’re not a terrorist, right?… I’m not racist or anything, but…’”

Before 9/11: he had lived as himself. He was a free human being.

Post 9/11: he had become caught, frozen, he would never find a way out.”

Kassah is an extraordinary, poetic writer with vivid, original imagery: “...someone stolen in with a thick black texta and gone over the memory so that nothing remained.”

‘Fatima’

Yet another woman has lost the long-time friend of their parallel lives  of marriage and children.

The words seem so small and what she wants to say is so large. The things she wants to write do not belong on a page; she has never even spoken them. Their true home was in silence. Now that Fatima is in the next world, there is no need to write about love and friendship because these words had lived silently between them all along.”

There are nuggets of humour: a story about selecting a suitor is set up to resemble a work candidate selection; “The moustache will have to go.”

At times, the humour appears dismissive of the tragedy. A story about schoolboys killed in a pointless fight is titled ‘Endangered Species’.

The final two long soliloquies take the reader deeper into the daily details of how a life is built, and how one can endure – with routine, hope and compliance.

‘Homing’

An old man, his body broken by hard physical work, and his dreams dried down to the basics of getting through; caution and endurance are his watchwords. His thoughts are powerful truths: “I have spent more of my life here than there but this land is not known to me…It does not enter my dreams…it is not enough to be told you belong here.” He consoles himself with unplanned dreams of a return to his country.

My favourite is “Darkness, Speak’.

An older woman poignantly reveals the difference between her outward life and character, and that of her inner: “When you are young you try to protect yourself from the world. You hide yourself…people cannot see the truth.” When her very old close friend is finally dying, she speaks about the safety of death, where they will be together, “in a place where again we may lightly speak.” In contrast to ‘Homing’, the woman shows us that she has adjusted to the harshness of her place in the world, sustaining herself with confidence in the truth of who she really is.

Throughout this book, Yumna Kassah gives us a hugely important education. I hope she will take her writing passion, empathy and skills into a narrative arc that will give the reader a fuller experience of these lonely lives. In a novel, I love to identify with a set of characters and be with them through the peaks and troughs of their interaction with the world, to a resolution that can be inspiring, even within tragedy.


Jan Allerton has worked in many jobs, from clerk and typist to teacher, clinical psychologist and counsellor. These jobs have provided excellent training for writing about people. An even better background is a life of reading—mainly fiction. This is still her favourite pastime. Jan started writing only recently and she regrets not having started much earlier. It’s a passion second only to her family. Jan has always lived in Sydney but loves travelling. She sees this as another great opportunity to observe people and their lives.


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