Monday, April 1, 2013

Haffar, 'Leah' and the Literary Intangibility of Mood

I am ruminating upon the theme of literary mood; that overarching fluidity of nebulous things, defined and captured not in the solidity of word or specificity of phrase, but a prevailing emotional connection that enthralls, entangles and ensnares...that keeps one riveted to page after page. In short not only the beckoning power of a given work but the hypnotic tendrils that tighten and hold, maintaining beguilement once the reader is singularly immersed.  Leah by Dana Haffar is just such an evocative pleasure.

This novel is centered on the island of Puerto Franco, of uncertain geographical location, set apart from the world in its wild isolation, shaped and buffeted by tempestuous winds. The narrative is depicted predominately through the eyes of Mar, a mainlander encumbered by grief for the death of her father and stillborn child, neglected by a selfish spouse, and consumed with fear for the safety of her surviving daughter Lemay; she seeks, on this apparently idyllic island retreat, to regain a sense of her stable self and to reconnect with the painting that sustains her. Despite her name (suggestive of the Latin mare meaning sea) Mar, who cannot swim, fears the turbulent swell of sea and the treacherous riptides that swell and pulse beneath the most placid of surfaces; she is an awkward addition to the island, distinguished from the bare-foot abandon of its inhabitants in her long linen, sunglasses and wide-brimmed hat.

Gradually entangled in insular affairs, Mar becomes aware of the dark tides that surge beneath the apparently amiable fa├žade and the terrible secret that dwells at its depth. The evocativeness of the weather, and manner in which it eerily parallels the inclinations of the Puerto Francan residents reminds me of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights; deaths and accidents coincide with uncanny precision to the gathering of stormclouds, the lashing of rain on roof, and the ferocious winds that drive the crested waves to fury. Hushed mutterings of spell-casting and dark curses thread through the narrative, and Mar herself is the recipient of repeated visits by the ghostly Leah who had drowned thirty years previously under darkly uncertain circumstances. Typically I am wary of the supernatural element within literature, while entertaining a relish for dark drama ghostly apparitions tend to leave me skeptical…Haffar, however, manages this thread masterfully, with a deft subtleness that is indubitably perfect within the confines of this novel. Leah is nuanced rather than manifested in the tread of footsteps in shifting sand, the skin-tingling deliberation of words formed in condensation, and the haunting sound of a child’s weeping. Just as Leah’s enigmatic brother Sebastian (a fisherman to which Mar is increasingly drawn) is defined by his physical solidity, his drowned sister is revealed not by her appearance but by a delicately eerie sensory imprint drawn in gossamer threads.

While the island mists seem to both reveal and conceal, a recurring motif throughout this marvelous novel is the ability ‘to see,’ to penetrate what lies beneath. Mar, plagued by vision difficulties that result in white blurred patches on one eye, learns from El Ciego, the elderly blind man, of devious doings; these are intimated rather than communicated, expressed in riddles that Mar must still decipher for herself; a Tiresius-like seer, El Cieglo ‘sees’ what others cannot.

The island itself is more than just a backdrop to the action that takes place upon its shores, it infiltrates the narrative, permeating the individuals who reside there (reminiscent of mid-nineteenth century physicians who thought geological outcrops the source of virulent disease) and in the process presents a distinct personality of its own: the rocky outcrop of terra firma, detached and withdrawn from the bustle of the larger human society, itself enveloped by a deep watery expanse; representative perhaps of the individual self: with the forbidding ‘Wild Side’ where few dare venture and vegetation is sparse and wind-bent, expressive of both tumultuous ferocity and the placid serenity of calm, with dark undertows scarcely seen beneath.

This vivid depiction of the island reminds me also of the evolutionary thread of island biogeography where uniquely exotic species thrive in isolation; protected by their watered moats, secure from the predatory tooth and claw, they develop to gigantic (or diminutive ) size, with lush cascading feathers or bizarre anatomical protuberances; suggested not only by the New Zealand kiwi and the Australian platypus, but even the version on the human evolutionary tree, the dwarf-sized Homo floresiensis (nicknamed the hobbit) discovered on the Indonesian island of Java. The general tenor of island biogeography essentially is the manifestation of the wild abandoned and insulated, of a circumscribed gene pool that gives rise to new strains of possibility and a secluded environment in which to nourish them. With the human animal however, the secluded isolation of island life tends to the macabre, to the ominous, and one reflects on Lord of the Flies or the ratcheting despair of the Pitcairn Island castaways. Puerto Franco is neither of these, the inhabitants have intermittent access to mainland amenities that are brought in by boat but they are, by and large, characterized by the rigid independence that has become necessary for their survival. The dramatic edginess of confinement, however,  the heightening tension of a circumscribed landmass encapsulated by an unforgiving sea, where the darkest threads of human nature are unleashed; this is a drama most particular to an island setting, and one Haffar ingeniously exploits to dramatic conclusion.

Leah is imbued with mood, with a literary-generated atmosphere of a wind-swept landscape peopled with characters vividly-drawn; where the reader accompanies Mar, a stranger to the island, as she unravels not only the dark enigma, the wellspring of curses, that lingers and stalls over the island like a gathered cloud of evil portent, but rediscovers her own inner strength. She learns to swim.

Mood is an elusive literary element that resists definition of any determined kind. It is a sweeping pull, much like the riptides that plague the coastal shores of Puerto Franco; or a mist, pervading a given work, that reaches out to encompass you within its swirling obscurity. It is a sustained emotional connection to a work you cannot put down, that evocative need for resolution that keeps you riveted to the page. Something intangible, ethereal, but nonetheless palpable, felt in the quickening of heart and the focused intensity of mind.


  1. Dear PJ,

    Thank you for sharing this riveting review of Dana Haffar's 'Leah' - something I have been intrigued by since I heard it mentioned in the Literary Endeavor, and now I am hard pressed to acquire my own personal copy to get reading immediately based on your outstanding descriptions and tantalizing analysis!

    I am especially delighted with your definition of literary mood and its application to 'Leah' in every aspect of the novel, from setting to character development to plot: "It is a sustained emotional connection to a work you cannot put down, that evocative need for resolution that keeps you riveted to the page."

    It comes as no surprise that Dana Haffar has weaved this wonderful tale that seems both mysterious and mystical at first glance, and I applaud her success. It also behooves me to congratulate you, dear PJ, on another fine posting that has edified my appreciation of yet another novelist in this fine world.

    1. Thank you dear Shari - Dana Haffar's work was a riveting pleasure indeed, and one I hope will be similarly enjoyed by many!

  2. Thank you, PJ, for reminding me of my intent to read "Leah" from cover to cover (I'm shaking off another mood here - apologies). Dana Haffar had the courtesy of letting me read the first chapters, and your musing entirely matches my good impression of it: the sensuous presence of the island, the heartfelt concern for the lost child, the overwhelming hurl into a miniature world governed by its own laws - but I won't say another word, as I am in no position to equal your evocation of 'Leah'.
    And Dana, congratulations - if belatedly!

    1. Thank you dear Pim for dropping by - always such a pleasure and a privilege to 'see' you here. 'Leah' was indeed an enthralling book and I have no doubt you will enjoy it immensely!