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Faith amid upheaval

BOOKS | Novel tells of a wandering family and the will of God

Claire Messud Handout

Faith amid upheaval
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One of the most important words in the Arabic language is inshallah, a term that means “if God wills” or “God willing.” Notwithstanding theological debates over the term Allah, the word inshallah is used by both Muslims and Arabic Christians to express the belief that God’s will supersedes man’s. It can also take an ironic sense, as in “that’ll be the day.”

This word inshallah is also at the heart of Claire Messud’s new novel, This Strange Eventful History (W.W. Norton & Company 2024), in which it is used repeatedly in disparate ways.

The novel tells the story of Gaston Cassar and his family. They are pieds-noirs—French-descended Algerian citizens—and they emerge from the shadow of World War II as unsettled nomads. They are welcome neither in the newly independent nation where they were born and which the family has called home for generations nor in the thoroughly European France.

Inspired by the story of Messud’s own family, the Cassars’ narrative spans seven decades, multiple continents, and three generations. For Gaston and his wife Lucienne, inshallah expresses belief in the will of God. As devout Catholics they are confident not just that His will shall be done, but that what He wills is the very best that can happen. Gaston and Lucienne believe inshallah is about fidelity—the fidelity that God models for us and that we owe Him in return. And in telling the story of the Cassar family as they traverse the 20th century and enter the new millennium, Messud is able to explore the ways commitment to such beliefs shapes a clan, come what may.

As the family wanders—vagabonds searching for peace—the character (and soul) of the family enters a wasteland. And so, although the book is interested in the political upheaval that shapes the Cassars’ story, its central question is not fundamentally political but rather spiritual.

What does it do to a soul, the book asks, to be separated from one’s roots? Can such a thing be overcome? If so, how? Are people doomed to flounder in the wake of the choices made by those who came before them? Can love and fidelity overwhelm the sins (and secrets) of the fathers?

Although the book is interested in the political upheaval that shapes the Cassars’ story, its central question is not fundamentally political but rather spiritual.

This Strange Eventful History shifts between the points of view of the various members of the Cassar clan: Gaston, the patriarch, ever hopeful and dedicated to an ancient vision of the world; François and Denise, whip-smart but largely broken, searching for something solid to cling to; François’ wife, Barbara, an outsider among outsiders, driven to be a modern woman in a family shaped by an age no longer popular; Chloe, François and Barbara’s daughter, the true modern among them, yet also the flame-carrier and rememberer in the new century.

For each of these characters inshallah means something different, and it is in those differences that much of the novel’s drama resides. Through their points of view we see the family drift, evolve, and mutate.

Even as the drifting seems never-­ending, This Strange Eventful History is a novel that declares that, come what may, “we’ve got to turn toward life, toward the light.” Fate may be a cruel master, their stories suggest, but no life is made up merely of what happens to it. A beautiful life is shaped not only by that which carries it along, but also by the degree to which it can “cleave to the light,” the degree to which it can be a “night-light, a mirror, a support” during “strange, appalling times.”

The book is a reminder that the most soulful lives are those that declare “If God wills” and get to the work of love, whatever happens.

David Kern

David Kern and his wife, Bethany, own Goldberry Books in Concord, N.C., an indie bookstore that focuses on selling new and used books that are True, Good, and Beautiful. He’s also the co-host of Close Reads and Withywindle, two bookish podcasts, the latter of which is for kids.


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