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You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat review – self-destructive search for love

The Guardian logo The Guardian 29/11/2020 Holly Williams

Zaina Arafat’s debut novel follows an unnamed young Palestinian-American woman through “a misguided and self-destructive quest for love”, as she repeatedly falls for unattainable men and women. She winds up in therapy, trying to work out why she always wants what she can’t have. Her mother, naturally, is partly to blame: she’s an emotionally manipulative figure, suffering from borderline personality disorder. The desire to please her mother – or be free from her – seems to shadow her daughter’s every move.

The minutiae of failing relationships are caught with precision

The first-person narrator has a distinctive voice and is a magnetic presence on the page; the scenes with her mother are electric. Arafat is a Palestinian-American herself, and these parts of her novel intersect most vividly with a wider context. The values and expectations of the protagonist’s family and the culture she’s immersed in during holidays in the Middle East clash with those she’s surrounded by in the US, and with her own identity. Her bisexuality is a particular source of disappointment to her mother.


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The minutiae of failing relationships are also caught with precision, but can come to feel repetitive – part of the point, with the narrator struggling to break out of the cycles of “love addiction”. But group therapy sessions occasionally seem like a needless device, given Arafat’s evident deftness when moving between anxious present and pertinent memory.

If Arafat has a tendency to overexplain the emotional beats of each romantic encounter (“maybe I needed to protect myself against debilitating and devastating heartbreak”), she’s more subtle in revealing how her characters’ backgrounds influence their behaviour. Throughout the book, the dates of 1948 and 1967 – when Palestinians were exiled in huge numbers – crop up repeatedly, in a seemingly offhand way. But you can also feel this sense of displaced “otherness” as a background driver of the mother and daughter’s restless dissatisfaction.

It’s only in the last pages that the link is made explicit, the narrator likening their pursuit for unattainable love to the quest “for a homeland that may not exist”. A nuanced, sparky debut.

• You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat is published by Dialogue (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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