The good – this is one of the first novels I’ve read that deals with the current civil war in Syria and in particular the desire of some to leave their country and fight against the regime.  The bad – the book spends too much time on dull domestic issues, the sort you’ll find in any number of literary novels.

opening remarks

I know very little about Elliot Ackerman or his book Dark at the Crossing, other than the fact that Ackerman lives in Istanbul and that this, his second novel, is a finalist for the National Book Awards.

knee-jerk observations

Haris Abadi, our point of view character, has headed to Turkey to cross the border into Syria to fight Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  It’s clear that Haris is looking for a cause to pin his ideals and principles too, no longer comfortable with his life in America after emigrating from Iraq.  His reflections on how the Americans fought in Iraq underline his beliefs:

The scenes that flash-back to Haris’ tour of duty in Iraq are far more compelling than the present day scenes set at the border between Turkey and Syria and Haris’ protracted stay in Turkey.  It’s probably because the scenes in Iraq are during an active war and are therefore inherently more engaging.  On reflection, though, it’s not just that the Iraq war is more exciting to read about, which makes me sound bloodthirsty, it’s because those scenes also contextualise why Haris wants to fight in Syria.  He is motivated by guilt for his actions in Iraq.

There’s a real mean streak to Haris that makes him very difficult to like.  His opinion of Daphne and Amir’s daughter – who likely died in an explosion in Syria is fucking awful:

To be fair, in the very next paragraph he does experience guilt for having this reaction to her image.  Still there’s a cruelty to Haris, a quickness to judge that I find unpalatable.  Here he is, for example, describing Latia, a close friend of Amir and a woman who has just escaped Syria:

Yes, yes, not every character needs to be a saint and most of us think stuff we would never ever say aloud (Donald Trump aside) still I can only judge Haris on how he has been presented and I don’t like him.

The Gist of It

I can’t remember having read a novel about the war in Syria prior to Dark at the Crossing.  That might have something to do with the books I choose to read or it might be that Syria and the horrors of the civil war and the rise of ISIS remains the province of non-fiction authors.  Whatever the case Dark at the Crossing is unlikely to be the final fictional word on the subject.  This is a good thing because while it’s a solid novel, a good chunk of the narrative has less to do with what’s going on in Syria and more to do with Haris, his guilt over Iraq and his relationship with Daphne, the wife of Amir, who continues to believe that her daughter survived an explosion in Syria.

Haris’ relationship with Daphne could have been cut and pasted from any number of literary novels where our main character shags an unfulfilled married woman.  It’s all a bit domestic, which is an odd thing to say about a book that deals with and recognises the refugee crisis in Turkey and the expansion of ISIS.  Ironically, the best parts of Dark at the Crossing don’t actually take place in Syria / Turkey but are flashbacks to the Iraq war where Haris accidentally betrays a US soldier.  With the domestic melodrama taking centre stage it’s a relief when, in the last third, Ackerman focuses back on Syria and Haris’ desire to fight against the regime.  It all seems rushed and perfunctory though, and so the end – which I won’t spoil – lacks the gut punch I think it’s mean to deliver.

Dark at the Crossing is by no means a bad book and the flashbacks to Iraq are dramatic and tense.  But as a story about a man looking to assuage his guilt by fighting a war he believes is just, Elliot Ackerman’s second novel left me wanting more.