The Confusion of Languages
Siobhan Fallon
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Buy *The Confusion of Languages* by Siobhan Fallononline

The Confusion of Languages
Siobhan Fallon
336 pages
June 2017
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Fallon has written a unique masterpiece. Centering on the subtle clash between the West at its most frivolous and Islam at its most austere, the novel’s urgency of subject matter is matched by the reader's desire to keep turning the pages. At the center of a story are two married couples: Americans Dan and Cass, and Margaret and Crick. Margaret and Crick have recently arrived in Amman, Jordan as part of a State Department military reassignment. Caught up the communal spirit, Dan wants Cass to welcome the newly married couple. She balks at her husband’s request to help ease Margaret’s transition into Jordan: “She was like that with me first, effusive, rambling, chummy.” A rebellious spirit, Margaret refuses to hide her disappointment when she learns that her first destination will be a cultural orientation class at the American Embassy.

The novel is set in the first months of 2011 just as the Arab Spring is becoming a revolutionary wave of demonstrations, protests and civil wars across North Africa and the Middle East. Given this volatile environment, the embassy has instructed everyone to be on high alert, especially newcomers like Margaret. Ignoring the warnings of the authorities, Margaret decides to befriend Hasson, a handsome security guard. But what Margaret sees as an ordinary American gesture horrifies Cass, who sees in Margaret a young woman unwilling to learn the area’s basic cultural values: “I hadn’t yet realized Margaret would cling to her ignorance, even delight in it.” A seemingly innocent handshake becomes something much darker in a world where it is frowned upon for Western women to assist or touch Arab men.

At first, Cassie despises Margaret with “her perky body, her dashing husband, and her fertile ovaries,” but she ultimately takes pity on her when it is revealed that Margaret is not that interested in associating with the embassy community. Instead Margaret pleads with Cass to take her and her baby boy, Mather, on a day trip to the Dead Sea. Margaret’s sudden fender bender is a reminder to Cass that no one but Margaret is in control. Guilty that she is somehow responsible, Cass offers to look after Mather while Margaret pays a “guilt fee” at the main police headquarters in downtown Amman. Ensconced in Margaret’s palatial apartment with crying Mather, Cass accidently discovers Margaret’s journal. “Green with a filigree of gold along the edges,” the journal is a way for Margaret to keep notes for Mather so that he can look back and read about all the things they did in Jordan: “to make him remember them.” But in reading the journal, Cass becomes increasingly unstrung and desperate as she attempts to tie up the ends of her own unfinished life.

The clock ticks; the hours pass. Cass checks her phone, realizing it is well over an hour since Margaret left: “I only meant to help her. At least that’s what I intended in the beginning...when things were so perfect between us.” Cass plunges into a growing atmosphere of anxiety when Margaret doesn’t answer. She has no idea where her friend actually is, and she worries when she thinks about Margaret’s penchant for going off on tangents and taking wrong turns. All would have been well if Margaret hadn’t sped up and gone through the yellow light. When Cass gets a call from Dan, we see the slow deterioration of Cass’s confidence in her marriage. The men in the story (including the Jordanians) are not always interchangeable. Crick is a man of action, but he’s blindsided by the actions of his wife. Cass considers telling Dan everything, spilling out all of her assumptions about Margaret’s so-called “Arab classes” and her ill-advised trip to Jerash to visit to Hassan at his home.

Flashing between Cass and Margaret’s voices, Fallon’s novel is a study in contrasts. These two very different women are caught between light and shadow, opulence and poverty, secularism and religious belief, justice and vengeance – and these differences often appear interchangeable. The shifting light of Amman acts as a dramatic backdrop to Cass and Margaret’s dramas. This is a city on fire with its the golden sandstone and square windows of glass constantly erupting in light. Ritzy townhouse complexes and canvas tents compete in a city that is untamed and overflowing and, for Margaret, always so alive. Fallon weaves this all together into a suspenseful recount of Margaret’s initial courtship with Crick. While Crick’s threat reverberates, Dan remains in Italy, unable to truly understand Cass’s pleas that Margaret is up to something, “that something isn’t quite right.” In reading all about her friend’s life, Cass begins to understand that her arguments against Margaret now “feel so feeble.”

Though Cass’s petty judgments against Margaret are sometimes irritating, most appalling is her decision to betray her new friend. The damage is irrefutable. “This is what you need to see, this is Jordan. Right now, in this moment breathing, alive.” That quote symbolizes Margaret’s passionate, untamed view of this country. Likewise, Fallon’s depiction of Cass, the older woman responsible for ensuring that every whim of her guest is taken care of instantly, is perhaps the struggle of a woman left alone to trace her own way through her marriage, her guilt, and finally, her forgiveness.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2017

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