“Meanwhile elsewhere” – that is how The Singularity by Balsam Karam starts. First published as Singulariteten (2021) in Swedish, it has now been magnificently translated into English by Saskia Vogel. The first page does not feel like a beginning. It is as if you have just interrupted an ongoing conversation, come midway into a story that began some while ago. It is accentuated by the use of present and future tenses that give the narrative both immediacy and the practised ease of routine. As if, this is the way of the world. At the centre of the novel are two women and their unbearable grief over losing their children: one gone missing as a teen and the other dying in the womb before it could even be born.

The architecture of grief

Karam’s novel is stylistically and formally inventive. The prologue introduces us to the setting, an unnamed coastal city, and the characters. The woman with a missing daughter has been searching for weeks before finally giving up and jumping off a corniche onto rocks below. A pregnant woman on a business trip from a distant country who sees the mother fall to her death finds out after a few days that her baby has no heartbeat. The three sections to follow are all different from each other. Images repeat and reappear, language folds in on itself, what was before comes forward once again as inescapable cycles of grief.

“The Missing One” relates the fatal final day of the first woman, looping back in time and returning to the 24 hours as it fills in her story. It switches over to her other three children as well as her old mother. “The Singularity” is set over a few days as the second woman finds out about the death of her foetus. She remembers her own past and her dead childhood friend. Slashes are used to differentiate her inner thread of reminisces from her interactions with the medical staff. “The Losses” is a series of short vignettes that relate the woman’s arrival in her current home country as a refugee with her family at the age of six.

Although it is never identified, it is clear that the coastal city is in the Global South. It has a history of war and houses many refugees. The mother belongs to a displaced family and they all live in an alley near the coast amid a jumble of rubble, sheet metal and tarpaulin. The children’s school has been discontinued; they stay at home with their grandmother who is lost in the past. Both mother and the eldest daughter, before she went missing, work and provide for the family. After the latter vanishes, their lives come to a standstill. The mother neglects her other children and goes out daily to search for her daughter, armed with an old photo and flyers printed out at the local library, and rarely comes back home.

The children, meanwhile, try to distract themselves through games and imagination. It is up to them to take care of themselves. They collect rocks and build a hill, they find a ball to kick around, they stop going out of the alley, and most of the time, they reminisce about their missing sister and the things she used to do. They survive through the kindness of strangers who provide them food or buy the small craft items that the grandmother creates from things given to them by relief organisations. The mother becomes increasingly listless, dissociated from life, running from pillar to post in an almost seamless daily pattern but to no avail. Her daughter is nowhere to be found and there is no clarity about her fate.

Snapshots of buried memories

The image of the first woman jumping to her death remains etched in the brain of the second long after she leaves the coastal city and returns home. Balsam Karam has taken care to not give identifiable geographical details; we know the latter is actually Sweden because of an off-hand mention of currency once. In the maternity ward, as she recuperates, she refuses induced labour against all medical advice and decides to bring the dead baby to term. She is reminded of her old childhood friend, Rozia, before she and her family fled to Sweden in search of political asylum. She remembers their close friendship and how, not long after they left, Rozia had died when an errant bomb fell on her home.

Moving to Sweden came with its own challenges and her family struggled to fit in and assimilate in a culture that wanted them to erase their past and begin anew. Here too one can see reflections of the first woman’s story, a history marked by displacement and migration, of difficult motherhood and compounding loss. More often than not, Scandinavian countries are seen as havens but this popular perception invisibilises the casual bigotry and discrimination that is a part of daily life there as well. Karam writes against disappearance. She articulates a language of loss – mothers and children, country and homeland – and attempts to unravel the workings of memory which keeps us alive but also brings us down.

The Singularity vividly brought to mind Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, in many ways. Both novels hinge around a central incident, a first half that irrevocably affects the second, and mirrored symbols. On the day of her death, the first woman wonders: “What mother doesn’t take her own life after a child disappears?” It is a sentiment echoed by the second woman in her question to a doctor at the maternity ward except “disappears” becomes “dies”. A singularity is the overbearing gravity at the centre of a black hole that yokes things together; a small change has a large effect. As their loss reorders their lives, the narratives of the two women get woven with each other.

The Singularity, Balsam Karam, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel.