Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette (2021 International Booker Prize Longlist)

The waves of sand, with their shifting shapes, would not settle until the vehicle had vanished into th distance and the sound of its engine had entirely faded. Only then did the sand drift gradually back onto the hills, softening the sharp parallel tracks left by the vehicle’s tires.

“Softening the sharp parallel tracks left by the vehicle’s tires…” I had to stop reading and make a note: Can we make our presence known for long? It seems to me that right from the beginning, Shibli’s making the point that we are all too easily erased.

The first half of the novel takes place in the arid Negev desert, where an officer and his soldiers are setting up camp. Their primary mission was to “comb the southwest part of the Negev and cleanse it of any remaining Arabs.” The date is August 9, 1949.

We are given clear, almost repetitive, details about the officer. He seems to use a bar of soap, a towel which he hangs on a nail, and water from a jerry can to wipe off sweat and dust at every opportunity. But, in the night he feels a creature crawling on his thigh, and though he flings it far away, he cannot later determine what it was. He only knows that he has a bite, as evidenced by two red dots, which progressively worsens. It turns hot, and swollen, and red, while he in turn goes from shivering to nauseousness to dizzy spells where he can hardly stand.

When he and his soldiers come across a group of Bedouins, they take a girl who has been left alive back to their camp where she is subsequently humiliated by having her hair cut short, then doused in gasoline to guard against lice. She is hosed down with water, naked in front of all the soldiers, and sent into a hut which was to be guarded. Her dog barks, then howls, as her situation worsens with abuse from the men.

Halfway through the novel we are thrust into a new narrative, one from a rather neurotic Palestinian researcher who comes across a particular article, and after reading it, determines to find out exactly what happened to this girl so long ago.

As for the incident mentioned in the article, the fact that the specific detail that piqued my interest was the date on which it occurred was perhaps because there was nothing really unusual about the main details, especially when compared with what happens daily in a place dominated by the roar of occupation and ceaseless killing…a group of soldiers capture a girl, rape her, then kill her, twenty-five years to the day before I was born; this minor detail, which others might not give a second thought, will stay with me forever; in spite of myself and how hard I try to forget it, the truth of it will never stop chasing me, given how fragile I am, as weak as trees out there past the windowpane.

As this researcher drives to the area where the girl had been abused and then murdered, I read (minor?) details that occurred between the first half of the novel and the second. Both narratives contained women splashed with gasoline, a dog barking rather ceaselessly, main characters shivering from cold, or bathing with soap to remove the day’s dust and sweat. These minor details showed, to me, an incredible irony revealed in the novel’s shocking conclusion.

Thank you to New Directions for the opportunity to read and review Minor Detail.