#RivetingReviews: Darcy Hurford review THE SINGULARITY by Balsam Karam

It’s Friday in an unnamed coastal town bordering on desert. It’s hot – ‘almost dissolved by heat’ – with tourists, children seeking work and slumbering students in half-finished new-builds leading largely separate existences. Along the corniche walks a woman, posting flyers under car windscreens, asking people if they’ve seen her missing daughter. Elsewhere on the corniche, a pregnant woman visiting the town on a work trip comes out to get some fresh air and finds herself looking on as the other woman climbs over the railings of the corniche and kills herself on the rocks below. Later, in a city in northern Europe, an ultrasound reveals that the unborn child is dead, but the mother pinpoints the moment of death as that moment on the corniche.

That, essentially, is the plot of The Singularity, revealed in the prologue over the first few pages. What Balsam Karam does with this set of events, however, is highly original. She explores loss and trauma using language and form in new ways, with the titular ‘singularity’ as a metaphor. The narrative winds around, eventually coming full circle. The language moves between past and present, dialogue and internal monologue. There’s an immediacy to it, a closeness to spoken language, which is skilfully captured in Saskia Vogel’s translation.

In the second section, the woman whose baby has died is in hospital, talking to a counsellor, and describes a ‘singularity’: a place inside a black hole where the force of gravity is too strong to be calculated, and ‘that force pushes bodies together and renders the distance between them nil […] and if there’s no distance between two bodies, it’s pointless to go on talking about distance, right?’. Trauma is a singularity, with no beginning or end point, no distance between the trauma of the woman who jumped off the corniche and the woman now in hospital. Nor are they all that different: the living woman, too, arrived in the northern country as a child refugee, leaving behind her best friend Rozia. She speaks the language of the country where she was on the work trip; it was one of the reasons they gave her the job.

Here the language changes, the sentences spliced between past and present, with no distance between them. Not experimentation for experimentation’s sake, but because the structure, the pushing together of two different experiences, simply requires it:

‘Again the counsellor is sitting across from you, asking you to explain your thinking / the day before you leave, Mum doesn’t mention anything / why don’t you want to birth your child? / she simply asks if you want to give Rozia a present because it’s Best Friends Day and then points to the calendar where she’s scribbled something down’

This splicing vanishes in the final section, titled ‘The Losses’, a day-by-day account of arriving in the new country as a child, with a brother, sister, grandmother and mother. The account unfolds over short passages – most barely taking a third of page – and ends at the moment the pregnant woman steps out onto the corniche for fresh air.

Balsam Karam is an author, librarian and lecturer of Kurdish descent who has lived in Sweden since a very young age. The Singularity is her second novel and the first to be translated into English. Translation rights for her first novel, Event Horizon, have also been sold to Fitzcarraldo. On the evidence of The Singularity, that’s surely no bad thing.

Reviewed by Darcy Hurford


Written by Balsam Karam

Translated by Saskia Vogel

Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (2024)

June 2024 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.

Darcy Hurford is a translator from Estonian, Finnish, German and Swedish. Originally from England, she is now based in Belgium.

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Category: June 2024Reviews


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