A Pure Heart

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 05 Nov 2019

Member Reviews

A PURE HEART by Rajia Hassib received well-deserved starred reviews from both Booklist and Kirkus. This is the contemporary story of two Egyptian sisters. One, Fayrouz, chooses to be called Rose and is an archeologist who marries an American journalist, studies at Columbia University and eventually works at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The other sister, Gameela, is more obviously religious (for example, she wears a hijab), harbors a number of secrets, and is killed in a suicide bombing. Hassib uses flashbacks to develop the characters and motivations of both sisters. She deftly weaves in questions of fate and identity: [Rose] "thinks that maybe there are multiple versions of her, too, just as there are multiple versions of him and multiple versions of Gameela, and that her different Roses will have to learn to co-exist, that Gameela's sister and Mark's wife cannot go on believing they are enemies ..." and of faith: "so much of faith as she [Gameela] understood it lay in a constant struggle to improve oneself, in the true meaning of jihad as an ongoing striving to be better, to do better, to let go of egotistic, selfish notions ...."   A PURE HEART is very informative about Egyptian culture and history; plus, this novel explores so much more, including family relationships, sibling jealousy, dissent, poverty, privilege, religion, the role of women, guilt, after-life and death. This would be an excellent title for our Global Studies students as well as adventurous book groups.
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This is an intimate story of relationships, intentions, and the purity of the human heart. The story centers two sisters in post-Arab Spring Egypt who live their adult lives on different continents, in different ways, pushing a variety of limits. Their Islamic faith plays a role in each of their lives, to varying degrees. When one sister dies in a suicide bombing, the other sister is left to make sense of her sister's secrets, the event itself, and the role her husband played in it. This is a book written from a little heard from perspective. Despite the heavy topic, Hassib writes with a soft touch and in its gentility, the book allows the reader to glimpse the hearts and minds of its characters. It is beautifully written, timely, and thought-provoking.
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An Egyptian Archaeologist sifts through the artifacts left behind by her sister who was killed in a terrorist attack to uncover whether her husband is somehow to blame for her sister's death. A Pure Heart is a slow moving exploration of grief, migration, and intentions.
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After her sister is killed by a suicide bomber in Cairo, Rose uses her skills as an archaeologist to do the only thing that might help her grieve: figure out how her sister came to be in that place at that time. In A Pure Heart, by Rajia Hassib, perspectives shift between Rose, her sister Gameela, Rose’s husband Mark, and a few others to answer that question. This premise blossoms over the course of the book to look at troubled family relationships, religion, and the way that we all show different parts of ourselves to the people in our lives.

Gameela is the religious one in her family of middle-class Cairenes. Unlike her sister and mother, she wears a hijab. Her piety creates friction in her family, especially with her sister—and especially after Rose marries an American journalist. Rose and Gameela don’t part on the best of terms when Rose emigrates with Mark to New York, to get her PhD in archaeology from Columbia. They speak on the phone, but they never see each other again. The friction, misunderstandings, and emotional baggage all pile on to Rose’s grief, threatening to pull her under.

When the book opens, Rose is sifting through her sister’s belongings to try and figure out what happened during the last months of her life. She learns that her sister had quite her job some time ago without telling anyone, that she had been traveling but no one knew where, and that she was married to a man Rose had never heard of. The discoveries floor her. The discoveries, I think, also pull the focus of the book away from the specific question of how Gameela came to be killed. Instead, A Pure Heart seems to be more interested in what we choose to hide from the important people in our lives. Mark, Rose’s husband, is comfortable with his many roles: husband, son, nominal Muslim, journalist, Egyptophile, and so on. Gameela is more tortured by her secrets. She’s even a bit tortured by the parts of herself that she does reveal. For example, she’s frequently mocked for her faith and hijab. By the end of the book, I couldn’t help but see Rose as caught between two people who are different sides of the same coin. Both want to be good and do good things. The difference is that one is comfortable with his world view and various selves. The other hasn’t found an easy balance.

This review leaves out a lot of plot, but I found the family and religious and moral dynamics more interesting. Besides, this book is technically a mystery. I don’t want to ruin the joy of figuring things out for other readers. And I would definitely recommend this book to others. Book clubs will find plenty to talk about and readers who like to mull over original family conflict. As a bonus, Hassib does sterling work in recreating a Cairo that many of us Westerners are not familiar with. There is the odd pyramid, but A Pure Heart takes us to a variety of neighborhoods with passages that evoke sights, smells, and the feel of the ancient, still lively city.
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There were a lot of themes here that kind of took away from the character's development. I really felt like I grew to know Rose and Gameela but every time I felt like another layer was being peeled away, the author added something to the plot that was unnecessary and distracting.
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This was completely new genre for me. From super paranormal reading to more "real" and current one in this book.
Did I enjoy it? Very much so. Heartbreaking story of two sisters and their journeys through the book from a Muslim perspective made me like this book. This was totally new thing for me, and I must say.. it was a highly recommended read.
I will be looking forward to more books from this author.
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A Pure Heart by Rajia Hassib
“Every person who falls does so with the blessing of a society who chooses not to care about him.”
Rose is an Egyptian woman living in NYC with her American husband mark. They met in Cairo when he was based there on assignment as a reporter, and now live in NYC so rose can work on her thesis. The novel is a curious intersection of exploring marriage and relationships, exploring secrets, and the key to personal happiness. The conflict stems from the strained relationship between rose and her sister Gameela. Rose is the modern woman who married a foreigner who had to convert to Islam. Gameela is the devout Muslim who seems to judge rose harshly for her choices. Danger comes when mark needs to tap into Gameela several years into his move back to NYC for possible sources for a story in Cairo.
I really enjoyed this story. I loved the visuals of Cairo, and life in a place I’ve never been. I felt for Gameela as the “lesser sister” (in her eyes) who could never measure up to Rose and was just looking for happiness on her own terms. I liked rose’s journey to figure out who her sister really was. I especially liked the exploration of the different marriages in the novel. There is a line at the end about a wedding band losing its shiny new beauty to a calm sheen and I thought that was such an apt metaphor for marriage and all its trials and joys. I would recommend this book.
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This beautifully written novel begins with Rose in Egypt, sifting through her sister Gameela’s belongings to try to understand how she was caught up in a deadly terrorist attack.  As the story unfolds, we find out more about Rose’s marriage to an American journalist, Mark, as well as Gameela’s personal journey to find her own way as a Muslim woman.  The political underpinnings of the story are illuminating, and Rose’s relationship with her sister reflect the times.  I loved this novel and highly recommend it.  Thank you to Netgalley for the ARC.
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A poignant, eloquently written novel centered around a suicide bombing in Egypt  which has a prolonged effect on one of the victim’s family. Emotions are laid bare and searching for an explanation of why leaves the characters both strong and vulnerable. An impactful, alluring story. 

Highly recommended!
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