As Diana Abu-Jaber’s novel Fencing With the King opens, it’s late 1995 and Amani Hamdan is adrift. At 31, she’s separated from her husband and drinking too much, her poetry and teaching careers on pause. She’s moved back in with her parents, Gabe and Francesca, in Syracuse, New York. Then her Uncle Hafez (Gabe’s brother and an adviser to the king of Jordan) calls from Amman with a surprising invitation: The king wants Gabe to partake in his 60th birthday celebrations, specifically a fencing exhibit. As teenagers in Jordan, Gabe and the king fenced together. In the interim years, Gabe immigrated to the U.S., married Francesca and raised Amani, their American daughter.
While considering this invitation, Gabe pulls out a family heirloom, an ancient knife known as Il Saif, passed to him by his dying father. Amani returns the knife to its satchel, where she finds a note written by her grandmother Natalia, a sad fragment that speaks of loss, perhaps that of a child. Amani, wondering about this grandmother she never knew, persuades Gabe to accept the king’s invitation, and soon father and daughter are in Jordan, greeting extended family and attending the first of the king’s celebrations.
This is only the beginning of a story that focuses on multiple searches. Although the novel belongs to Amani, it includes the perspectives of her uncle and father, Hafez and Gabe, who are brothers but opposites. Hafez is a self-centered mover and shaker in modernizing but autocratic Jordan, and Gabe is a quiet contractor living a suburban American life. Amani is seeking clarity about herself and her failed marriage, but she also wants to understand her family’s past, in particular the sadness of grandmother Natalia, who was forced to flee her village in Nazareth as a child in 1918 and resettle as a Palestinian refugee in Jordan. With the help of her 19-year-old cousin Omar, Amani begins to decode the mystery embedded in her grandmother’s note, a possible secret at the heart of her family history.
Abu-Jaber, whose family’s story is reflected here, writes with a poet’s attention to language, and the novel beautifully evokes Jordan, from its modern cities and society parties to its ancient desert sites and Bedouin goatherds, all existing together under the whims of an autocratic kingdom and at a time (the mid-1990s) when peace in the Middle East seemed almost within reach. Fencing With the King is a complicated, character-driven and slow-burning mystery with a satisfying yet open-ended finale.