Balsam Karam’s The Singularity (translated by Saskia Vogel) is a quietly devastating book about displacement and loss, and the tribulations faced by refugees. It revolves around two stories of two very different mothers. In doing so, Karam is able to range across a range of experiences of people displaced from their homes.
In what is a framing story, a mother searches the corniche of a tourist town for her oldest daughter, known only a the Missing One. The Missing One had been working at one of the tourist restaurants on the corniche and is not the only young woman to have disappeared. On her final night of searching the mother is observed by a pregnant woman who is in town on business. The pregnant woman’s narrative is delivered in second person. As the mother’s tale rewinds and deepens, readers meet her mother and her three other children who live in an alleyway by a half-constructed building site and live on handouts and what they can make selling recycled washcloths to tourists. Later the focus of the story switches to the pregnant woman and readers learn that she too was a refugee. Her story is very different in that her family found themselves a home in Sweden but still suffered discrimination and abuse.
The Singularity is deliberately told in an ambiguous way. While Sweden is identifiable, the country that the main characters have fled from and the country in which the woman and her children have ended up are not identified. The idea here is not to reflect on any particular situation but rather on the plight of refugees generally and both the diversity and commonality of their experiences. Karam uses a number of different techniques to bring her characters to life including, in a one section, a poetic stream of consciousness that flips between the present and scenes and events from the character’s past.
Through her use of language and imagery, Karam effectively puts readers in the lives of the dispossessed and provides an insight into their lives. The Singularity is a short novel that can be easily read in a single sitting but in that brevity it packs a punch.