The Foghorn Echoes focuses on a split narrative, pitting the past against the present in order to trace the ragged edges of a once vibrant romance. Raised in Syria, where religious beliefs and political tensions shaped their sense of the world, Hussam and Wassim attempt to outrun past cataclysms — both physical and emotional — in their own tortured ways.
The novel creates a wistful aura that projects an ambient world of senses, recalling the tastes and sentiments sampled in Ramadan’s native Syria. The lulling rhythm of the day-to-day is quickly punctured by a kiss that sets two boys ablaze. Followed by the death of a key figure in their lives, it marks both a birth and a collapse.
This demise makes for a shocking twist, splintering the future with an instinctive act of violence. It makes sense, then, that the planes of the factual and the metaphysical begin to overlap. Ghosts roam both the psyche and its surroundings, smudging guilt and shame over gradually restored narratives.
Sentences turn succinct, often swelling around notes of exaggeration. And while erratic behaviour and seesawing resolutions keep things moving along, their pace seems a little precarious at times, a little too off-kilter.
It doesn’t help that emotions choose to swirl beneath the surface, both in relation to the narrative and individual bodies. Elusive, foiled by trauma and past disappointments, they keep self-expression stilted. This prompts the men to turn to the theoretical in pursuit of the concrete,
And it’s in response to this lack of direction that the novel’s structure yields. Kalila, the ghost who envelops Wassim’s present, proves to be a fairly distracting medium, overwhelming the chapters dedicated to his past with her own disembodied recollections.
Though they succeed in introducing far-reaching aspects of Syria’s history from the female perspective, these memories take on the form of clunky annals that are flung at the reader rather self-consciously, as though aware of their incongruence.
As a result, the country’s turmoil unfolds dispassionately before us, slaking curiosity with dry passages that grate more than settle. Refusing to blend with The Foghorn Echoes‘ dominant narrative, they materialise as summaries of wayward thoughts; ones that would have run rampant otherwise.
Hussam’s life in Vancouver, suffused with one-night stands and heady drugs, likewise fails to pull at the heartstrings, coming across as more of a parody of gay life than an exploration of the many ways in which trauma can stimulate self-destructive habits. Vapid and unfulfilling, Hussam’s reality derails at a pace that jolts and bucks, especially when countered by Wassim’s more contemplative state of mind.
Lost and guilt-ridden, Hussam proves rude to strangers and dismissive of his lovers, forgetting their names while derogating their company. Though his actions are partly justified by his impenetrable past, its gradual unveiling prompts a rather cool response from the reader.
It would likely turn either frosty or lukewarm if Hussam managed to appear true-to-life, with speech patterns that emulated natural conversation. As things stand, the novel thrives on artifice.
We can never completely overlook the fact that we’re ingesting the product of someone’s mind, with characters that follow a delineated path in a show of exceptional submission. There’s very little feeling or logic to bolster their movements, allowing the effort that is spared to be given over to lavish displays of self-pity.
The thoughts that are infrequently voiced are, likewise, denoted as Higher by their unattainable ideals, achieving little connection with the tactile world. That’s because, though beautiful, they often prove impossibly awkward on the tongue.
It’s also hard to overlook the narrative’s dependence on the stale notion of seeking deliverance through sex and exile, “His nails breaking blood, his dick shattering me, and the drugs are my absolution.” While compelling in its own way, this assertion turns bland when it ultimately fails to ripen, leaving both Hussam and Wassim stuck reliving the same sensations time after time.
As a result, the two men appear as walking archetypes, communicating too much with too few words. Beliefs and rages slip through their fingers, exhausting the grip of the individual with the weight of communal pain. In many ways, they personify the abridged, flattened voices of the many, making their mark on the page symbolic and intangible.
All of this could probably have been alleviated by the force of their connection, which is said to span years and continents. Unfortunately, no such bond can be discerned. Aside from the kiss that sparks a series of woes, their relationship appears narrative, never thematic.
Considering that the depth of the tale hinges on the men’s ill-advised passion for each other, its relative scarcity serves as the very thing laying waste to the heart’s creation.
Publication date: September 1, 2022 (Canongate)