Saturday, June 19, 2010

Madwoman of Bethlehem, by Rosine Nimeh-Mailloux

"In mid-20th century Bethlehem, a woman finds that the only way to take control of her life is to feign madness. It is 1957, and Amal is an inmate of the Bethlehem Oasis for Troubled Women, having feigned insanity for nine years in order to avoid being put to death for the murder of her abusive husband. When a violent attack by a fellow inmate confines her to bed, Amal must not only heal physically, but also come to grips with her traumatic memories. These take her back to the harsh childhood, restricted life, and violent marriage that culminated in her 'madness' and incarceration.
Amal's story offers compelling insights into cultural norms that exist throughout the world even today, norms that tolerate the violence, repression, and abuse of girls and women. Perhaps most disturbing is that the author brings us into a world where the guardians and foot soldiers of repression are women themselves, often mothers and grandmothers who've experienced no better, and whose only power comes from what they can wrest from their relationships with other women. Amal ultimately finds hope and redemption through her relationships at the asylum and hospital, finally discovering that the support and kindness of others gives her the strength to forgive the past and take control of her future."

Amal's name means "hope". What we found most intriguing in reading this story - and what we can't quite explain - is that, as horrific as Amal's story is in places, we never lost hope for her. There are some really heart-wrenching bits that should have driven the reader, let alone Amal, to despair. There are certainly enough things conspiring against her to make it hard to believe things could ever improve.

As the story jumps (seamlessly, we might add) back and forth between Amal's present life in an insane asylum, and the events of her life that led her there, we see glimmers of kindness and hope - sometimes even coming from those who had been her oppressors in the past. In the end, however, it is Amal herself who holds the power over her own freedom, literally and figuratively. An emotional rollercoaster, well worth the ride. We give it a

5 out of 5.

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