Kim Jensen, The Woman I Left Behind (Curbstone, 2006)
Irene is in college in southern California in the mid-1980s. She has left her East Coast American home and life behind in search of something meaningful. Like a few of her contemporaries she discovers that meaning in leftist politics. Anti-apartheid work leads her into a political world that eventually includes the struggles of the Palestinian people against the expansionist policies of Israel. Like many of her countrymen before and after her in a similar environment, the realization of her complicity occurs on an emotional as well as intellectual plane.
Khalid has been on the run since he was ten years old. Chased from his village by Israeli soldiers he ends up in the refugee camps of Lebanon. Camps that eventually become another bloody chapter in Tel Aviv and Washington's campaign to destroy the Palestinian battle for dignity. On the run again after the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila camps, he ends up in southern California as the green card husband of a woman he eventually leaves for Irene. Passion replaces practicality and Irene and Khalid began a journey of self-discovery that at times serves as a ring where ideas about life and politics wrestle in a match that will never end.
This novel is about creating a new life in exile. As noted before, Khalid's exile is not of his own volition, whereas Irene's is self-imposed. This is but one of the differences. Although both required moving somewhere else, Irene remains in her native country. Khalid's country was taken from him. Nonetheless, exile is exile, despite these very fundamental differences. Even though Irene could choose to return to her life of privilege and apathy, her attachment to Khalid and the new life they are creating means that she won't. Jensen puts these thoughts in Khalid's mind to describe their approach to survival. "We will change our names. We will live in exile. We will not die." Of course, this is also meant to describe the existence of the Palestinians driven from their homes by war and intimidation.
Ms. Jensen does a wonderful job telling this story. Achingly real, the narrative transcends the relationship it describes and becomes a poetic tale of life. Emotional yet not overwrought and rational but not without passion, The Woman I Left Behind is a novel well worth the read. Two humans at the barricades of today's most pressing issues, their journey leads them to discover the power of love. The ongoing human dialectic between the will to power and the will to desire is not resolved by a victory of one over the other in this book, but in a synthesis of the two. Love that begins as a Hegelian struggle becomes love as the creation of life.
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground (Verso 1997). His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, should be out in early 2007.
Other Articles by Ron Jacobs
Along the Dead-End Road We Call the Iraq War