Ooof. Have you ever read a book that felt like getting beaten up? One that was so consistently brutal, so emotionally bruising, you had to take frequent breaks to gather yourself? One where you needed a good lie down after you’d finished? Well, if you haven’t, The Stray Cats Of Homs will show you what its like.
It’s written by the pseudonymous Swedish journalist Eva Nour, and follows the life of Sami, her Syrian partner, from the late nineties to the present day (an author’s note explains that, whilst the main events are drawn from real life, some characters and encounters have been fictionalised). Sami’s childhood is, on the whole, a conventional one. He has a pair of loving parents, and a collection of boisterous siblings. He goes to school, he has friends and hobbies. Although there is an unsettling background of unease and rumours of hushed-up governmental atrocities, as a child he’s largely unaware of the looming danger. He is happy.
But Syria is sliding ever more into chaos. Things start looking bleak for Sami when he decides not to do his government-mandated military service. When they catch him, he is imprisoned, tortured and forced into making maps that will help the army kill innocent civilians. The people back home are escaping Homs as quickly as possible; those who stay behind start dropping like flies. Amidst this unimaginable chaos, Sami does his best to keep living.
What makes The Stray Cats Of Homs such a gruelling experience – aside from the obvious horrors that have struck Syria over the last decade – is the bodily manner in which Nour describes Sami’s immense pain. For a western audience, the horrendous events that Sami experiences are impossible to imagine. We just don’t have the frame of reference necessary to understand the hellscape his life becomes. Nour – who is herself writing from what she’s heard second-hand – helps us by making Sami’s agony tangible. It’s in the way in which she describes the bedbugs in the prison that maul his body; how starvation makes twelve lentils and a bowl of water seem like an incredible gift. In how a borrowed pair of shoes half a size too small – the only pair available to him – turn his feet into a bloody pulp. Nour drags you into the terrifying, exhausting nightmare, shoving you into the mud, and subjecting you to the screams of the desperate and dying. She forces you to face the reality of life for so many people; so far away, both literally and figuratively, from our own.
And that’s the thing – underlining every page of The Stray Cats of Homs is the sense of betrayal felt by the Syrian people: why didn’t anybody help us? Why were we left to die? Nour’s is not a fun book to read – it burns and it stings; each sentence is an accusation – but to read it is to begin to pay a debt that all of us owe. If you can’t alleviate the pain, the least you can do is not shut your eyes to the suffering.
The Stray Cats of Homs is published by Doubleday on 6 August 2020