Patricia Sarrafian Ward: The Bullet Collection

C.L. Joran
Patricia Sarrafian Ward
The Bullet Collection
Graywolf Press

There are plenty of books and movies out there to remind us that there is still humanity in times of war: Puberty and first love and sibling rivalry all survive amid the bombs and rubble. We've seen droll little Roberto Benigni vignettes and Spielbergian spot color showing how love and compassion conquer the madness that is war. But in Patricia Sarrafian Ward's The Bullet Collection, the madness of war surrounds, overcomes, and nearly kills two young sisters growing up in Beirut during one of the most protracted conflicts of the late 20th century.

Anna envies her big sister Alaina. Flat and angular like a boy, Alaina plays soccer with the Palestinian refugees in their neighborhood and collects mementos of the tumult surrounding them--bullets, shrapnel, the belongings of dead soldiers. She regularly runs away, prowling the danger zone between East and West Beirut. She cuts deep into her own flesh and slams her head on the tiled floor. Anna both cherishes and resents the role she is given: keeping watch over Alaina to make sure she doesn't kill herself. She is the well one, while Alaina's derangement consumes the family, becoming their own private war.

The war continues as Anna enters high school. Her own small-scale adolescent rebellions go unnoticed amid the turmoil on the streets. But she cannot handle the pressure of being "the sane one" for long. By the time the family escapes to the United States, she is the one their parents whisper anxiously about. (The author, herself the child of an American father and Middle Eastern mother, moved to the United States as a teenager.)

When is that moment when Anna finally wins the prize she'd been longing for--Alaina's disturbance? When does Alaina become the caretaker, numbly keeping watch over Anna, having completely forgotten her own episodes? Sarrafian Ward weaves that transitional moment into her narrative so subtly that it's almost impossible to pinpoint it. This role reversal spirals through the novel, twisting the present (set in a small East Coast college town) together with Anna's childhood and adolescence in Beirut. The delicate structure and impressionistic language mimic memory and understanding. This is the way Anna processes her descent, we're given to understand, and her attempts to climb back out of that hole.

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