With Turkish forces invading northern Syria, the release of Strong’s new novel Where The Sun Rises offers a timely and necessary insight into the conflicts of this region.
The focus in Strong’s novel is the village of Kobane, a Syrian town within walking distance of the southern Turkish border. In contemporary times – late 2019 – forces backed by Turkey are amassing to drive out the Kurds, but back in 2014-15, when the novel is set, the Kurds are pushing back against Daesh, an Islamic terrorist group. Although the conflicts are not identical, there are correspondences in what it means to be Kurdish against oppressive forces driven by religious imperatives.
We enter the story when Daesh are advancing towards Kobane. Karin, who is a medical student, is estranged from her fiancé, and is in the final stages of completing her medical degree. In a story that runs parallel to this, we are introduced to Roza, married mother of one, and teacher of English at a local school. It is soon evident the woman who are the focus of these alternating chapters have been strong allies in childhood. A decade later they still remain friends, despite their diverging paths.
When Karin’s brother, Mani, announces he’s off to join the war against Daesh, she laments that he lacks the imposing physique of a soldier.
“His shoulders seemed smaller and bonier than before, vulnerable somehow. She wanted him to be large and bulky, and felt a terrible dread of wanting to protect him but knowing she couldn’t.” Mani leaves for the war and when he doesn’t make it through, Karin decides to stand in place and fight in his honour. There is a female militia group she already knows about, and now she treks off to enlist. On her journey there she reflects on the irony of her decision: her life won’t be dedicated to saving lives – as it would have been in her medical career – but instead will be dedicated to taking lives away. We forgive Karin’s decision because it is clear she has so few choices. The border into Turkey is closed, the war puts a stop to her degree, and her family’s lives are endangered. Good people defend their territory even if it costs them their lives.
Roza wrestles with a similarly difficult decision. She has seen her husband go off to war and the school where she teaches is emptied of students. When she learns her husband has been killed, she struggles to be an effective parent for little Yez. Overcome with grief, she believes the best course of action is to take arms against her pain, and fight to obliterate the loss of her husband. Leaving Yez with relatives, she, too, joins the female militia. Roza and Karin meet at the military training camp and are grateful each has the other for this next harrowing chapter of their lives.
The experience of war brings Roza and Karin closer together, but ultimately the friendship implodes in a defining incident which is both harrowing and emotionally powerful.
Despite the central focus being war, there are keen moments of levity. In the midst of crossfire, we duck into a local bakery – still operating throughout the conflict. Tension is ratcheted down when characters cut loose with singing, dancing and the tembur. There is even an intervention from a gaggle of ducks.
“ “Chh, chh, chh,” Roza said to the ducks, getting them to move along, and guiding them into the nearest yard, relieved they didn’t have any young with them.”
It stands as a testament to Strong’s writing that while she has no direct experience of war, readers still feel immersed in an authentic experience. Take Strong’s description of Roza’s first experience killing Daesh:
“It was strange to see a connection between her fingers, some wood, metal, and powder, and taking a man’s life. Instantly she felt sick, an emptiness she had never experienced seemed to open up inside like a cavernous ravine, as she watched his deep thick blood oozing into the dirt.”
Key scenes are rendered in simple but powerful prose.
“Your daddy became a martyr today,” she told him. “He gave his life for us.” She could barely say the words; they seemed hollow. They embraced the dirt of the street. …It was as if they were the only people in the world.”
If you are curious about how women are inculcated into army life, if you are engaged with feminist empowerment stories, or if you enjoy learning about new cultures through a touchstone like war, I strongly recommend this novel. The story also serves as a sobering reminder of how fortunate most of us are not to be embroiled in conflicts so persistent and harrowing.