review no 180, by Imogen G

I’ve not had much time recently, but one book I have managed to get through is Alligator & Other Stories by Syrian-born, US-raised, UK-based writer Dima Alzayat. Alligator is a short story collection that was shortlisted for the James Tait Black prize for fiction this year.

The James Tait Black prize lists for both fiction and biography are among my favourites, and the prize is the UK’s oldest, awarded each August by the University of Edinburgh’s School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures. Former winners have included Eimear McBride’s wonderful Lesser Bohemians (for fiction), one of my favourite books, and Lindsey Hilsum’s riveting biography of war reporter Marie Colvin, who died in Syria in 2012.

Alligator & Other Stories is a varied, experimental collection that didn’t always work for me – I found the quality of the stories very mixed, but I was impressed by the wide variety of voices and styles of writing in this collection, which has as its heart an examination of the immigrant experience.

My favourites were the moving opening story Ghusl, in which, like a modern-day Antigone, a girl prepares her murdered brother’s body for burial, in defiance of patriarchal norms, and Summer of the Shark, which takes place in a telesales call centre on 11 September 2001, and which I read, coincidentally, on the anniversary of those infamous attacks.

The collection has its eye on contemporary sociopolitical themes, so naturally there’s a #metoo-type story, Only Those Who Struggle Succeed, which reads a bit like Rachel Cusk, or perhaps more like Kristen Roupenian’s infamous Cat Person.

Alligator is the longest and most ambitious story, based around a real lynching in 1929. The story uses a collage-like style that employs both actual and imagined documentation, and combines newspaper reports, witness statements, emails and even a script for a psychic TV reality show, and links the experience of Syrian immigrants with racism and the persecution of minority groups throughout USA history.

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