Travel literature review: House of Stone

House of Stone by Anthony Shadid

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Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Reviewed by Anita Isalska

House of Stone is a disarmingly personal exploration of identity and rediscovery, deftly drawing together small-scale human drama and the carnage of war. The book examines the horrors of war without heavy-handedness, and explores human relationships without self-pity - leaving the reader acres of space to ruminate on the book’s broader questions about identity and growth.

Author Anthony Shadid, a renowned Lebanese-American foreign correspondent, returns to Lebanon to rebuild his great-grandfather’s ruined house. Raised in Oklahoma and having lived for periods in Beirut and Boston, Shadid finds himself in a country that is at once home and not home. The story of rebuilding is knitted together with tales of his family history, so reading feels like accompanying the author on a very personal journey.

The house, of course, is not the only thing to be rebuilt. Shadid reflects elegantly on the fallout of his emotional life, saying simply of his ended marriage:

‘By the time I arrived in Lebanon, I was a suitcase and a laptop drifting on a conveyor belt.’

Shadid has a gift for poetic simplicity, managing to unearth the torments of his country’s history without ever being too graphic. The wartime accounts somehow take on an even more devastating quality because of their understated expression. ‘I wish God would have left me with just one child,’ says a grieving father, leaving undescribed the bloodshed of Israel’s shelling at Qana.

Shadid’s project to rebuild isn’t always met with support - the very community he hopes to honour often hurls his plans into disarray. Shadid is warned:

‘They’ll come up from nowhere like plants. That family. Like those weeds that grow. You won’t know where they came from.’

Bittersweet insights about family and human connectedness fuelled plenty of rueful smiles as I read House of Stone. Readers who have travelled to learn more about their family history will strongly relate to the frustrations of remaining an outsider in an ancestral homeland. This relatability, and the book’s haunting prose, are perhaps the greater successes of the book, even more so than its remarkable insights into the rebirth of the Middle East.

Anita Isalska is part of Lonely Planet’s online editorial team in London. A good book can leave her staring into space for hours.

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