New Review: Where the Sun Rises

“Spoilers: The themes of war and feminism on the homefront and battlefield are revealed in Suzanne Strong’s novel, Where The Sun Rises, a suspenseful and heartbreaking novel about two women who join an all-female fighting unit in war torn Syria.

In 2014, Karin and Roza are two friends who live in Kobane, Syria in tense anticipation as Daesh’s army is closing in on the Kurds. Many men are fighting a resistance against the approaching army. The people left behind are left with the choices: either leave Syria forever, take up arms and join the fight, or stay and take their chances. Either way, these are difficult dour options, options that could end in misery, violence, and death.
Roza and Karin are ready to face these dark changing times. Roza is a teacher and married woman who lives with her loving husband, Sercan, and darling son, Yez. Karin is unmarried, but has her own views about what a woman should do. She recently ended an engagement with an abusive fiance. Karin is ready to fight against Daesh, but her traditional family forbids it. Her brothers can go of course.
Sercan is joining the Resistance against Daesh. Roza is worried and doesn’t want him to go, but understands why he has to. When Sercan and Karin’s brother, Mani, are killed in action, Roza and Karin grieve, but then wipe their tears and enlist in the Yekineyen Parastina Jin (YPJ), the all-female fighting unit.

This novel is particularly effective in how Roza and Karin are portrayed. They are motivated to join by grief and revenge, but also by other reasons. Roza is protective towards Yez and signs up as an ultimate act of motherhood to keep any harm from coming towards her child. Karin enlists as though to prove her worth as a woman. She is tired of being treated as a second class citizen and wants to prove her worth to her country, family, and herself.
Karin is rational and feisty while Roza is quiet and emotional, but the two make a great team. Their friendship is developed on the battlefield as violence and bloodshed that surrounds them makes them more protective towards each other.

We also see characterization developed in the rest of the unit as well. Perhaps Strong wanted to avoid stereotypes and cliches. Perhaps since the lead characters are female, Strong wanted to emphasize collaboration over competition, but Commander Tolhedan, their leader, is a relief. While she is stern, she is not a shouting drill sergeant. She has a dry sense of humor and clear compassion towards the women in her unit. Tolhedan knows that “a woman can fight” against their enemy and society’s perception of them and is ready to use any means necessary to help her women prove it.

There are some really tense moments that solidify the horrors of war and the deep friendships that the women feel towards each other. Their joy is felt when they defiantly sing traditional Kurdish folk songs over a fire. Suspense mounts as the YPJ take on a dangerous mission to rescue a soldier’s sister and other women who are about to be trafficked to Daesh’s army. They also face heartbreak when a raid results in the death of a friend and colleague of Karin and Roza’s.

Karin and Roza’s characters evolve even as their friendship is strengthened on the front. The intense grief is understood when Karin and Roza return to Kobane and Roza pays her respects to Sercan’s grave no longer the shy schoolteacher, but a fierce warrior ready for action. Karin also begins a transformation as she develops close friendships with the other women and begins to trust and fall in love with a male journalist who shares her progressive views about women. The two friends help each other through the changes as Karin provides another emotional center for Yez and Roza helps steer Karin towards her own personal happiness.

Where the Sun Rises shines with rich fully characterized women who face war and death, but most importantly are pulled together by their friendship. This friendship is what helps see them through the dark days of war and look towards the better brighter days ahead.”

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