Award-winning author Sonia Saikely’s newest novel, The Allspice Bath is an enjoyable, yet emotional story (almost like a modern folk tale, now that I think about it) about a Lebanese family living in Ottawa in the 70s-90s. Youssef and Samira Azar have recently immigrated to Canada from Lebanon with their three daughters. Youssef runs a corner grocery store. He speaks little English, so he relies on his daughters to help him with the business. The novel opens with Samira having just given birth to yet another daughter, much to Youssef’s chagrin. Not only that, but her uterus had to be removed along with the C-section, so there are to be no more Azar children. No hope for a son to carry on the Azar name.
“She’s a beautiful baby,” Samira said in Arabic, glancing at Youssef.
Youssef briefly stared at the infant. His thin mouth almost smiled but then he flicked his tongue over his chapped lips. “I don’t care if she’s beautiful. That doesn’t change the fact that she’s a girl.”
This daughter is the only one born in Canada, so already at birth, her allegiances are divided. She was to be a son, her father’s last hope for one. Now, she is unwanted as well. It is a nurse who names her Adele, further magnifying the Lebanese-Canadian divide with an English name. Poor Adele!
Adele’s is a difficult upbringing for she is the only one to stand up to her father, a verbally (and when really upset, physically) abusive father who insists on her maintaining her Lebanese culture. However, Adele has grown to become a feminist by circumstances and this moves her in a different direction than her three older sisters by opposing the entrenched tradition of marrying a nice Lebanese man to cook, clean and have children for. Adele is proficient at being an artist and she wants to go away to the University of Toronto, but her father will not allow her to move away from family. If she goes to Toronto, she cannot come back, he tells her. Reluctantly, Adele agrees to stay at home and attend the University of Ottawa, but her desire is to be one day free of this family with which she has a never-ending love/hate relationship.
This is a book about Adele’s family struggles, not only with her father but with her siblings too, who take their father’s side almost every time, fearing his violent outbursts. He is not above calling his daughters sharmouta (whores) if he suspects they are dating enklese (Canadian) boys, and he will slap them if they talk back too much for his liking. I’m sure many will read this with a box of tissue handy; it gets quite emotional at times. Some scenes take place back in Lebanon, where the entire family travels to, secretly planning to get Adele married off to a boy named Elias. Ms. Saikely wonderfully juxtaposes the beauty of the Lebanese countryside with the city of Beirut, where Adele and Elias are almost victims of a bomb.
As I mentioned at the outset, The Allspice Bath is reminiscent of a modern folk tale (or fairy tale, if you wish) in that Adele is a type of Cinderella, but the resemblance ends there, for she is not searching for her Prince, just independence, equality and understanding. But what about that odd title, you ask? It has a certain symbolic significance, so you’ll have to read the book to find out!
Sonia Saikaley’s The Allspice Bath is a deeply-moving portrayal of family life and an intimate exploration of the ties that bind.Anita Kushwaha, author of Side by Side
The Allspice Bath by Sonia Saikely
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