Thank you to Net Galley for sending me an Advance Reader Copy. Note to readers: there are details from the novel mentioned in this review but (hopefully) no plot spoilers!
Out of Touch by Haleh Agar is a soulful story about two siblings, Ava and Michael, and the ways in which they try to make sense of their family’s past.
Michael lives in New York. Ava, England. And as their current lives unfold we are given glimpses of the way things were between their parents when Ava and Michael were growing up.
Towards the end of the novel, their father, Lee asks ‘What do good families do?’ and it is this uncertainty, this search for a happier future to eclipse a tricky history which seems to fuel both brother and sister in their daily lives.
Earlier in the story, a request is sent by Lee to see both his adult children urgently. As readers we are intrigued to discover how this part of the tale will develop.
The scenes in New York where Michael lives with his partner and son are vividly told, ‘everything in mason jars’ and with a straightforward realism which is compelling and enjoyable to read.
And the appearance of an artist neighbour who is able to see into Michael’s apartment adds an interesting dimension – a twist on the idea of the male gaze – for as she watches him and his young family go about their daily life, it is the female gaze making Michael conscious of his actions, affecting the choices that he makes.
Out of Touch is well paced and yet there is a captivating stillness to its prose, an acute sensuality reminding me of the film, ‘Yes’, by Sally Potter which also looks at shattered family dynamics and cultural crossings.
The international angle is delightfully told, not just through the dual scenes set in the U.S and UK but via the backgrounds of the characters themselves — Lebanese, Greek Cypriot and Iranian. Culturally-specific details add texture to our understanding of the main characters and a liveliness to their histories.
There is much depth portrayed in this novel but also a pleasing lightness to the writer’s style which makes it a book which is hard to put down (I read it in two sittings and I’m generally not a fast reader!)
It was refreshing to read how the twin taboos of physical and emotional pain are tackled and the myriad ways in which humans try to face or avoid them.
When something frightening happens to shake Michael and his partner’s family life in New York, his partner Layla responds by becoming overly cautious, taking a hammer on car journeys in case of an accident, deciding to try to become the ‘God’ of the family by checking everything she can. Layla’s anxiety which seems to stem from a disconnection from the nominal faith of her childhood is insightfully handled through the narrative.
While the difficult legacy of Michael and Ava’s mother, Elena, is portrayed in detail there is also space for complexity in our understanding of her. And it is this grappling with the dynamics of family and the way characters try to overcome their histories through new choices that this book is at its most captivating. We are given a window not only into the pain of the past but also the ways in which repair may occur in the present.
The love story at the centre of the novel plays out beautifully. Sam is earnest and believable, Ava wavering and confused until she has to make a decision either way.
There is something warm and life-affirming and ultimately important about the way human difficulties are addressed in this book. I was left at the end with the sense, as a reader, of being seen. The existential questions the characters face – whether it’s possible to make peace with the past (can old disagreements be mended?) and why a look at what happened long ago might shed light on our present responses – feel universal and timely.
I look forward to reading more from Haleh Agar.
Out of Touch is published by Orion, available to purchase from April 2nd 2020.
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