In ‘The Things We See in the Light’ Amal Awad explores the power of new beginnings

Amal Awad’s The Things We See in the Light brings together a familiar cast of characters and proves that it’s never too late to come of age.

Through a considerable body of fiction, non-fiction, and screenwriting, Amal Awad has sought to dispel the reductive mythology surrounding the experience of Arab women in Australia. And while The Things We See in the Light (Pantera Press) contributes much to the understanding of that experience, it’s first and foremost an inclusive story, highlighting the healing power of friendship and committing to living without fear.

Bringing together a trio of characters that have lived inside the mind of Awad for more than a decade, it centres on the story of Sahar, her ill-fated marriage, and her seeking of belonging. Through Sahar’s eyes, we see that trauma can be put into perspective and the past need not define us.

Amal Awad

At the beginning of the novel, we find Sahar, trepidatious, as she approaches her old friend Lara’s Newtown apartment unannounced. Even if she does hesitate to interrupt the domestic peace of Lara’s life, she simply has nowhere else to turn. Back in Australia after leaving Jordan — and her husband Khaled — she’s beginning again. And though she was never the life of the party, she’s a shell of her former self.

In these early chapters of introspection, the first-person narrative is used to great effect. It’s the perfect vehicle for confessional thoughts and draws out the disparity between the world of Sahar’s memories and the comparative stability she sees around her upon arrival in Sydney.

“…I don’t know how to explain that what fills my thoughts when it comes to freedom is not the stuff people usually think a woman who has left her husband must want.” Sahar discloses. “I don’t care about sex or a night on the town. I want solitude and space. I want to crawl into myself and out as I please while I process the path ahead.”

The Things We See in the Light

Despite the yearning for retreat, an opposite, equally determined internal force nags at Sahar. Her passion for the kitchen lures her into an opportunity — a junior position at a local patisserie. And while she quietly resents the fact that she has to begin in a position that’s beneath her capabilities, there’s potential for further expansion into a new life that she instinctively recognises.

This underlines one of Awad’s key strengths as a storyteller: her characters are developed with intimacy and care. The insular struggle between Sahar’s tendency to revert to old habits and her curiosity about the prospect for new beginnings is portrayed with nuance. And though the bulk of the story is devoted to our introverted hero, her old friends Lara and Samira — and new friends Kat, Inez, Luke, and Leo — are similarly three-dimensional and colourfully detailed.

And while we can revel in the details, the novel as a macrostructure also functions elegantly. Pacey, tightly plotted, and with an unexpected development in the final act, it’s all too easy to fall under the charms of The Things We See in the Light. Like last year’s brilliant Such a Fun Age, it gives us an immensely relatable protagonist who isn’t always sure of herself, but is no less courageous for her vulnerability. Unabashedly warm, it still manages to trace Sahar’s relationship with her faith, trauma, and love, with unflinching honesty.

The Things We See in the Light is out now via Pantera Press.