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On Balsam Karam’s The Singularity, tr. Saskia Vogel

A Review of The Singularity by Balsam Karam, Translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel (Feminist Press, January 2024)

Split into three parts, all formally different, Balsam Karam, in The Singularity, writes a lyrical, moving, formally inventive narrative of motherhood in the wake of loss—of child, of home, of self. In the first part, a mother searches for her lost daughter; in the second, another woman must give birth to a baby that is stillborn; in the third, the second woman grapples with her own history of belonging to the nation as she reflects on her own displacement from her home to this unnamed nation. With a narrative focus that moves between timeframes, going from scenes in the prologue depicting the second woman learning that the child she is carrying is stillborn and then witnessing the first woman commit suicide, to the history of the first woman’s loss, and then back to the grief of the second woman, the novel is always generous with what it means to be a mother in relation to the loss of a child. In the aftermath of defining events of motherhood, both women must grapple with their own relationship to motherhood in terms of life in the city, personal fragmentation, and national belonging. 

In the first section, focusing on the first woman, none of the characters are named, none of the geographies are named. The lost daughter is referred to here only as “The Missing One,” and the city is traced only through the evocative phrasing of the “the city with the corniche.” Tracking the woman’s grief as she searches relentlessly, Karam writes from the free indirect point of view of the woman’s other children—left behind as she searches and searches for her lost daughter with singular obsession. They grapple with their own displacement, their mother’s neglect, as they exist in the geography of the city—severed from their sister and mother, losses intertwined deeply with their experience of geography. The city is deeply intertwined with how this woman understands motherhood—the corniche, or cliffside road, with its evocative imagery, becomes representative of the woman’s grief as she desperately searches for her daughter, unable to find a reprieve from loss and loneliness. In losing one child, motherhood as a state of being becomes increasingly displaced from her sense of self, and the distance between her and her other children grows until she throws herself from the corniche.

“Today the world feels different somehow new and the woman decides to search for her daughter one last time and thereafter no more—never by the sea or along the harbor or by the deserted plots of land or in the half-desert below the mountains,” writes Karam, as the first woman continues her search for her lost daughter. In every sentence, Karam captures the ceaselessness of the grief the woman grapples with, a kind of meandering that remains without end, as these sentences encompass whole paragraphs, often unbroken by punctuation. Spanning a vast geography, always with the corniche as its center, Karam writes this woman’s grief with care, always with the cruelty of the world ever present, with the corniche and all it represents in the periphery of the woman’s vision, and the reader’s vision. The world’s cruelty remains, juxtaposed against the empathy that Karam’s narration, framed by the children, bears toward the mother.

In the second part, the second woman, in the aftermath of witnessing the first woman’s suicide and of receiving the knowledge that her baby is stillborn, must grapple with her own relationships to motherhood as she loses her child. Formally, in documenting the loss of the second woman, Karam moves from longer lyric meditations to a ceaseless stream of consciousness as the woman finds herself in the maternity ward, and then back into shorter fragmentary paragraphs as the woman moves between her preoccupation with the first woman’s suicide in the aftermath of losing her child, and her reflections on her own mother, who was displaced from her home to this unnamed European city, and forced to reckon with a new language and landscape.

“For years you wander along the windowless walls like a lock between the reception and the maternity ward, and when someone asks you to tell them what it was like, you tell them you remember, but each time using new words and in a different order,” writes Karam, as the second woman grapples with the loss of her child in the spatial landscape of the hospital. In the distance of the second person, Karam creates a tenuous complicity, one that forces us to reckon with our interconnected global landscapes and grapple with complicity in the way these women’s lives unfold in the wake of geopolitical displacement.

Later, in the final section, as the second woman moves back in time to her arrival in the country, marked by an immediate racialized othering, Karam writes of the woman’s grandmother: “Your Gran’s last wish is not to be buried in this earth, to be allowed to go back home.” Even as the corniche, the defining geographical landmark of this city, becomes slowly distant from the narrator as she moves backwards in time, the cruelty it symbolizes remains, as this lineage of motherhood grapples with the new country. In this section, as the second woman looks back from the perspective of deprived motherhood, Karam examines what it means to leave a motherland, and to leave a mother tongue behind—even in temporal distance from the first geography, it echoes through the years, even as these mothers negotiate their own ways of belonging in a hostile geography.

Ceaseless in form, and relentless in the movement of its sentences, The Singularity tracks the intertwined grief of these two women with an unwavering empathy and kindness, as they grapple with their own loneliness and grief in the wake of perpetual loss. In these lyrical meditations, Karam gets to the heart of what it means to be a mother haunted by the loss of a child, in a geography that is not one’s first geography. A novel about what it means to exist in a fractured, tenuous motherhood that is and is not, The Singularity examines what it means to collapse motherhood into itself, to look both backwards and forwards to negotiate a new self against a landscape that is fundamentally cruel, even as it glitters perpetually.


VIKA MUJUMDAR was born in New Jersey and raised in Pune, India. She holds an MA in Comparative Literature from UMass Amherst, where she is currently an MFA student in Creative Writing (Prose). Her work has appeared in the Cleveland Review of Books, the Brooklyn Rail, the Chicago Review of Books, and elsewhere. She edits Liminal Transit Review.



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