You Can’t Go Home Again

Anthony Shadid, House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family and a Lost Middle East

Granta, 311pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781847087379

reviewed by Lilly O'Donnell

House of Stone is about going home, about finding emotional and spiritual solace. So it’s fitting that it became the parting work at the end of a career and the end of a life.

A couple of days after the renowned correspondent Anthony Shadid died in Syria while reporting for The New York Times, his US publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced that his memoir, House of Stone, would be released early. I was among the eager hoards who pre-ordered the book on Amazon the day its early release was announced, grateful for one last opportunity to see the world, and the complexity of the Middle East, through Shadid’s knowing eyes.

The main narrative in House of Stone focuses on Shadid attempting to restore his ancestral home in what is now Lebanon. Beset with delays and stuck with workers who lack any sense of urgency, it is a story of impatience and frustration. It’s tricky to write a story about stagnancy – to spend pages and pages talking about the fact that nothing is happening, without boring your readers to tears. The story of a house not being built is brimming with potential for the existentially tense emptiness of Moby Dick. But instead of filling the void with human desperation and using the lack of action to force reflection the way Melville did, Shadid ends up passing his frustration on to his readers.

At first I enjoyed the slow-moving prose, the absence of any hurry to get to the point. I imagined I could feel Shadid enjoying the newfound freedom of writing a book, seemingly endless in length when compared to a newspaper article. Shahid had written two previous books, but Legacy of the Prophet: Despots, Democrats, and the New Politics of Islam (Westview Press, 2000) and Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War (Henry Holt, 2005) were more journalistic, without the creative, literary freedom of memoir.

I imagined that Shadid was finally able to include details and descriptions that he’d been holding onto for years, constrained by the brevity and rigid formula of news writing. I was happy for him, and looked forward to taking the slow stroll with him, assuming we’d eventually arrive somewhere. I settled in, prepared to lose myself in the dreamy pace of the story. But, about halfway through the book, I began to wonder if maybe we were just walking in circles; if we’d ever actually get anywhere.

Distilled, there’s something beautiful at the core of the story. The restoration of the house is, of course, about more than fixing up an old building. It’s a quest for some kind of spiritual healing for Shadid, who describes himself at the beginning of the project as tired, ‘stunned by war, and shockingly, no longer young, or married, or with my daughter.’ And it’s about trying to recapture the past (the immediate past of a family and the further back past of a lost empire), reaching back to something that’s no longer there and will never be there again; a theme definitely driven home by the fact that Shadid was dead by the time his story reached the hands of readers.

The first few times he eulogises the Marjayoun of old and laments the damage done by war, it’s beautiful. ‘Old traditions that represent values, daily habits that calm the mind, are not perpetuated when war stops time,’ he writes.

‘Life goes unattended. What might have been lasting is lost. The old ways of the Levant have dwindled down here, as war – or the threat of it, or the wait for it, or the loss that follows it – has become a way of life.’

The problem is that, much like the house, the story doesn’t really develop beyond this nostalgia for a city that’s lived past its prime. By the tenth description of the lost glory of Marjayoun, I had stopped caring.

The self-aware honesty at the beginning of the book, about why he went there and what he was looking for, promises an emotional and intellectual journey. When he writes of himself as ‘a suitcase and a laptop drifting on a conveyor belt,’ and describes the house of stone as an enduring symbol of home for him and all his family, I expect equal honesty and self evaluation throughout the journey he set us up to take with him. But, rather quickly, his frayed psyche steps out of the spotlight and descriptions of tiles move to the fore.

The best bits of the book are the historical flashes, italicised and markedly outside of the narrative about the house that wouldn’t be restored. These segments tell the story of generation of Shadid’s family that first built the house of stone, and how they came to leave it for America. These sections, in Shadid’s more familiar mode, tell the story of a community beset by war and a changing social and political landscape. They paint a vivid picture and introduce tangible characters, complete with not only motivation, but action.

Perhaps my expectations were too high for the last instalment in a long series of insights into the workings of the world from the adored mind of Anthony Shadid. I knew while reading that this was his last work so I, like him, was searching the pages for some kind of spiritual absolution, for some kind of arrival in comfort and finality. But, also like him, I was left instead with a feeling of incompleteness, a memory of something that was once there but is now gone forever.
Lilly O'Donnell is freelance writer based in New York. She is currently working on her first book, a biography of her deceased artist father, a memoir of researching him, and a study of art in life.