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The Singularity by Balsam Karam review – a brilliant and beautiful study of displacement | Fiction

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At first glance this looks like a book that might have been put together by artificial intelligence to blend reliably successful elements. One of its subjects is the very timely topic of the plight of refugees; another is questions of motherhood, as featured in two of the shortlisted titles for last year’s International Booker prize. And it comes from Fitzcarraldo Editions, the coolest publisher in town.

But as it turns out, The Singularity, the second novel (and first to be published in English) by Balsam Karam, a Swedish author of Iranian-Kurdish descent, is evidence of the unique genius of human creativity. No machine could deliver the surprises, the tonal shifts and the blend of empathy and irony that make it so satisfying. And it is, not incidentally, evidence that Fitzcarraldo is fashionable because it continues to pursue its own vision through work as singular as this.

The story is set everywhere and nowhere, in an unnamed coastal city divided into zones rich and poor, “half obscured by skyscrapers, and half left to the desert”. The city is undergoing unevenly distributed redevelopment, and the chaotic structure of the place is reflected in a breathless style. The coastal road, or corniche, is all that holds the sea at bay; it is populated by refugees, many of them children. One mother of a displaced family has lost her daughter and spends her days wandering the corniche, looking for “the Missing One”, obsessively tucking flyers under windscreen wipers. But while she searches for her daughter, the narrative spotlight turns increasingly to the other children she neglects.

This is where the book takes its greatest risks of failure. The sections with the children are not subtle, hammering home the negativity of their lives: the foul nature of their surroundings, “where the palm trees droop and the earth corrodes green and brown”; how they count the cigarette burns on their mother’s skin; and the narrative gives short shrift even to an aid agency “that says hello and how are you all then here you go and we’ll be back soon, even if it’s not true”. Only a greengrocer who provides the children with food escapes authorial cynicism.

But then comes the shift that AI would never predict and which insists upon the reader the importance of a writer who remains one step ahead. The viewpoint switches to another woman who has a link to the Missing One’s mother. She is on a business trip to the prosperous part of the city, and the narrative switches rapidly – divided only by forward slashes – between her dealings with the mother and her own traumatic pregnancy. It forms an exceptionally effective, tumbling prose poem of juxtaposition between two experiences.

And the best is still to come in the final part, which takes the second woman’s childhood story – now she is a girl – and breaks it into short, sharp vignettes, one per page. We learn about her first job; her friend “found in the rubble after a bombing”; her move to a new country. The scenes are efficient, covering multitudes in a few words and leaving plenty of space for the reader to take an active part in the story’s creation. The strongest parts show the pain of assimilation into a new culture, as the girl has school friends over to visit, and asks her grandmother to make pancakes instead of her traditional stew.

Making a new life, she learns, means leaving the old one behind. One moving scene, just five lines long, shows the girl’s mother going to bed as she struggles to understand her own children talking excitedly in their new language. Language is at the heart of The Singularity, moving as it does from chaos and cacophony to the simple purity of a single voice, which is one measure of its brilliance and its beauty.

  • The Singularity by Balsam Karam, translated by Saskia Vogel, is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (£10.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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