It is not unusual for me to cry while reading a book, but it IS unusual for me to cry for the variety of reasons I did while reading Correspondents by Tim Murphy. A sweeping tale of families on opposite sides of the world, Correspondents manages to be both epic and intimate at the same time.
Family histories are traced as men and women fall in love, start lives together, build homes, go to church and chase dreams. Educations are sought and parents set high expectations for their offspring–wanting their children to have better lives than the ones they cobbled together for themselves. The sprawling family connections are familiar, comforting, and fraught with what are easy to consider as typical issues. As these patterns continue, a young boy leaves the life he knows in Syria and crosses the ocean to pursue a job and valuable money to send home to his family from America. Soon, that young man will become a doctor and marry an Irish-American girl, and their granddaughter Rita will achieve her dream of becoming a Harvard-educated war correspondent, reporting from Baghdad before the age of 35.
Meanwhile in Iraq, another family is just getting by. In this family, there are teachers, government workers, and grandparents that live with their grown children and help to raise the little ones. An undercurrent of fear ripples through the community as an invasion by the United States appears to be imminent. The family has been suffering under U.S.-imposed sanctions as well as the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein, but fears the unknown posed by war. The educated, professional Asmaa has been encouraging her younger cousin Nabil to learn English and get a good job his entire life, and she eventually finds him a position as a translator for the government.
This work is where he eventually meets Rita Khoury, who had been passing her time in Lebanon filing stories for the American Standard newspaper, praying that the war would start so she could meet her professional ambitions. Together Rita, Nabil, Asmaa and a cast of international characters navigate the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, attempting to share the true story with the world while keeping their lives, reputations, and sanity intact.
What cannot be captured in a brief synopsis of the book is the depth of the emotions evoked by Murphy’s writing. He manages to convey the heart-wrenchingly similar and suffocatingly brutal bonds between members of the Syrian, American, Irish and Iraqi families which we meet in his book. The high standards Rita’s father set for her were so that she would be HAPPY, not so that she would make him happy… but she lives her whole life so as not to disappoint her dad. Nabil spends much of his life running from his true desires so as not to bring shame to his family, and by the time he recognizes what he really wants he cannot be his authentic self without being susceptible to blackmail. Rita passes judgment on her sister’s decision to marry a bland guy and have kids with him, but after the trauma she experiences in Iraq she realizes maybe her sister made a good choice, after all. The small twinges are perfectly described on the page and may need to be re-read a few times for the full effect to come through.
I’m not trying to say I cried my way through this book. But when the tears came, they were real and plentiful. It wasn’t just a teardrop or two at a nicely coined phrase… it was the kind of satisfying, snotty crying one does after actually going through something.
I loved Correspondents. Much like Rita, I idolize Tom Friedman and have devoured his books. She’s a relatable character and the relationships she has with friends, lovers and co-workers ring true. I can picture the families gathering at tables, swimming in lakes, and walking into the bazaar to admire jewelry they will never buy. If you want to expand what you think about love, foreign policy and family ties, give it a read. You won’t be disappointed.