Darcy M. Meijer was a Peace Corps EFL teacher in Gabon, and has taught ESL for the past 25 years. She is also the editor of the Gabon Letter, the quarterly newsletter of the Friends of Gabon. Currently she is working in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, and spends cool summers in the Bay of Fundy, Canada. Here she reviews RJ Huddy’s first novel, The Verse of the Sword.
The Verse of the Sword
R J Huddy (Morocco 1981–83)
Reviewed by Darcy M. Meijer (Gabon 1982–84)
THE VERSE OF THE SWORD, RJ Huddy’s first novel, is a thoroughly enjoyable read. The book is funny, informative, and engaging on many levels. It’s time someone wrote a literary novel about the Middle East that faces religious extremism in a human, thoughtful way.
Verse opens in an Intensive Care Unit in Boston, where Harrison Bacon, doctoral candidate in ornithology from West Virginia, is recovering from a boating accident. Bacon falls in love with his nurse, but events lead him to take a temporary job in Algeria, where love strikes again. The plot thickens in ways I can’t reveal, and Huddy’s hero reappears, a convert to Islam, under a new name, in Morocco. There he becomes an unwitting suspect in religious warfare, and unspeakable events follow which threaten all that Bacon holds dear, including his life.
Although it’s basically a story of love and personal growth in a time of turmoil, Verse of the Sword has the attractive bounce of an action-suspense story. The plot gathers heat with every chapter as Bacon moves farther from his home and traditions.
Huddy periodically breaks the suspense with “Background” chapters. These are often gently humorous anecdotes about Bacon’s Missionary Baptist upbringing in West Virginia coal country. Huddy says that he was attracted to the idea of exploring in fiction the similarities between fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam. His taking an “apolitical and sort of closed-off character like Bacon” and putting him in a setting similar to, yet quite different from, his childhood home, sets up this juxtaposition of religious cultures.
Bacon is a very likeable fellow, but what you sense most in the beginning of the story are his doubts about himself. Huddy explains that he has developed “a defensive shell to protect him against the pain that he believes will follow every close relationship he develops. The main story line involves him wrestling with the wisdom or otherwise of having constructed, then allowing a breach in, that barrier.” It is this sensitivity and Bacon’s maturation that drive the plot of Verse.
The most pleasing aspects of Verse of the Sword are Bacon’s senses of irony and humor. I laughed out loud often. Bacon makes language jokes; he laughs at his romance problems; he questions his sanity; he doubts his usefulness. These are what make him such a likable and sympathetic character. Indeed, they enable him to jump the hurdles that Huddy puts in his path. Who but Bacon could summon Maria Callas singing Tosca while being tortured? What’s more, Bacon’s mental distance rubbed off on me — it helped me to get through the one gritty section of the book.
I have traveled to and lived in numerous countries, and I love reading about them. I asked Huddy how he is able to provide such vivid descriptions of his settings. First, of course, he served with the Peace Corps in Morocco from 1981 to 1983. Since then he has worked in France, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, and the UAE. Huddy keeps extensive journals wherever he is. When he is writing, he goes back and reads through them, sees details that suit a particular character or scene, and works at choosing the right words. I complimented Huddy on his realistic, meaty dialogues. He attributes his ability to write them to his “strongly aural learning profile” and says that dialogue is the sole part of the writing process that he doesn’t have to sweat over.
A major theme in Verse of the Sword is the political upheaval that results when Islamic fundamentalism meets non-religious government. Huddy airs perspectives on the conflict by voicing them through various characters. I asked him for his views.
“In many ways the European Enlightenment was, at its most basic level, a pragmatic response to all the horrible religious conflicts that accompanied and followed the Reformation. They said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to stop slaughtering each other over religious differences, so let’s just agree that you can believe your way, I can believe my way, and we’ll leave it at that. We’ll separate religion from politics. We’ll contest the political arena, but leave religion out of it.’
Now, I think the essential, maybe unconscious, reason today that adherents of western democracy fear a politically motivated Islam is because Islam has never made that internal decision to live and let live. There are millions of tolerant Muslims, of course, and some tolerant regimes, but there has never been a dominant philosophy to separate religion from government. Since religious rules seem of overriding importance to their adherents, but entirely arbitrary to non-adherents, when extremists try to control a society there’s a likelihood of severe conflict.”
One character in Verse of the Sword yearns for a society based on Enlightenment values. He would like to overthrow the existing authority. Another is a scholar of the French Revolution and has personal memories of World War II. She fears that any movement fueled by revolutionary passion will run out of control. Two more characters are pawns in the revolution — one a top government minister and the other a prison guard.
Huddy explains, “The great thing about fiction is that you can explore a theme in all its complexity and contradictions, not just stake out a position and say, ‘This is the right answer.’”
Like many American women I know, I once said that I would never live in a country where women wore veils. I couldn’t imagine living in a place where women were second-class citizens, I thought. And this was where my information and imagination stopped. Living in the United Arab Emirates, I’ve learned a great deal about Bedouin culture, veils, Islam and the Quran, and Middle East history. Huddy is on the same path but far ahead of me. I can learn from him.
Huddy’s book is a wonderful addition to the increasing amount of literary fiction related to the Middle East since it is infused with his personal experience. He is neither apologetic nor dewy-eyed about the region.
Huddy says, “The books I enjoy most allow you to get lost in some strange place, then emerge feeling that you’ve lived there a while. I hope to be able to write books like that.”
Huddy has certainly accomplished his goal. I highly recommend that you read Verse of the Sword.
(Huddy’s second novel is due to come out in September. Entitled Learn Thai with Me, it is about “a fairly weird friendship between two ESL teachers in Saudi Arabia.”)
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