“He was beyond saving, and still he chose to pray.” One sentence of ten short, modest words, perfectly encapsulates the essence of Australian poet Omar Sakr’s debut novel, Son of Sin.
Through this marvellous text, Sakr paints the life of Jamal Smith, the young child of a Lebanese immigrant family settled in Sydney’s west. A child who is burdened by the absence of a father he never knew, an abusive semi-present mother, a struggle with sexuality and the position of his faith amongst all these things.
As the child of immigrants settled in Western Sydney, I was apprehensive of reading this novel. I was afraid that every facet of this novel would hit too close to home, that it would all be too sobering for me to face. Spoiler alert: it was. But in a remarkably refreshing way. The novel which once sat on my shelf collecting dust for months was neatly devoured in two sittings. Go figure.
One major reason why this novel was so easy and enjoyable for me to read was the writing style. Sakr was a published poet prior to writing fiction and it shows quite plainly in his prose. He writes about some of the most painful experiences of immigrant children but successfully manages to lace them with all the beauty in the world.
However, his unique style of writing also has some setbacks. One thing I simply must mention is his purposeful avoidance of quotation marks… yes, that’s right. No quotation marks. Godspeed, my friends. Now, I personally don’t flinch at manipulated punctuation, and so, the lack of quotation marks made no real difference to me, but I know that it could be a massive red flag to many readers out there. Further, Sakr’s narrative employs a multitude of flashbacks, which aren’t very clearly marked out, so be patient and take your time with your reading, otherwise the entire narrative will slip between your fingers.
Moving onto thematic concepts in the novel, Sakr’s exploration of religious faith, as experienced by an immigrant family, was refreshingly blunt. As much as many love to bury their sins into the darkest depths of their minds, the various religious transgressions explored by the characters in Son of Sin provided a realistic reflection of the hypocrisies many cling to in our society. Having sex before marriage but not eating pork, smoking hash while demonising alcohol, having sex with fellow men while also being homophobic, the list could go on and on. Son of Sin lays it all out in the open.
I should clarify that Sakr doesn’t necessarily romanticise these transgressions but rather writes them in to offer readers a glimpse into the incredibly complex relationship many immigrant families have with their faith. Combined with the trauma and repression experienced in their mother countries, many immigrants experience their faith in a way which is entirely unique from any other individual, even though it may be hard for some of us to read without cringing, Sakr’s novel hinges on this premise.
Although I typically shy away from bleak representations of familial relationships, I found myself becoming more and more invested in Jamal’s relationship with his family as the novel progressed. There is the absentee Turkish father, his abusive and semi-absent mother, his pseudo-mother-aunty and his detached siblings. This cast of characters absolutely consumed me and left me utterly full of grief. The tone of this familial exploration is best explained in the following line narrated by Jamal: “But this was the story of his life, the slow making of family out of strangers, and so he was at least familiar with the tension of bodies catching up to the burden of their names.”
While many readers may perceive his family to be abhorrent and toxic (I don’t disagree), Sakr does such a beautiful job of showcasing the nuance to these relationships when you’re the child of an immigrant. It’s not representation that everyone can relate to, but to those who do resonate with Jamal Smith, I know it means the world. The older you grow, the deeper the fractures in your family become and Sakr plays upon this notion perfectly.
Covering the protagonist’s life from being a young teen to a grown adult, the novel naturally covers pivotal moments in Australian history, such as the infamous 2005 Cronulla riots. While many of us are only acquainted with these riots via what we’ve seen on the news and in media, Sakr offers us a heartbreaking glimpse into the perspective of young Lebanese individuals facing mobs of young Anglo-Australians. What I particularly enjoyed about Sakr’s representation of this experience is not only the visceral rage felt by the characters in the novel but also the inclusion of how these riots affected all Aussie POCs who did not look ‘white enough’.
You could say that the novel is actually an exploration of grief more than anything else. Jamal’s grief regarding his family is possibly the best example of this. He first experiences grief when he is removed from the aunty who raised him as her son, consequently also being removed from his cousins he considered brothers, and from then on he only experiences more loss and grief.
But what I loved most of all was the lack of happy, neat endings. There is no heartwarming reunion of his family, no mending of broken relationships, no dazzling boyfriend or dramatic coming out scenario. Just Jamal Smith having a painfully strange conversation with his erratic mother. A fitting ending to such a grief-packed text.
Overall, Son of Sin was a stunning debut novel. Although a bit bleak at times, I would recommend this novel a hundred times over, as I believe Sakr has crafted a narrative so diverse that every Aussie will find something in it to love.