This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 18.5.
The Servant is aptly described on its front cover as a “Cinderella story—with more than a few twists.” The setting—war-torn Lebanon in the late 1980s—presents narrative possibilities that Fatima Sharafeddine explores effectively. The story is powerful, but weakened significantly by a stilted diction in both the narration and the dialogue, and too much “telling” by the author when the characters should be “showing” us their world. Nonetheless, Sharafeddine’s short novel is well worth reading, for its moving representation of a young girl caught in a traditional world turned on its head both by conflict and by encroaching modern ideals.
The protagonist, Faten, is sent from their village to a rich family in Beirut at the age of 15. Her father arrives monthly to take her pay: Faten has roof over her head, but no freedom, no income of her own, and no hope for her future. When the young attractive Marwan moves into a neighbouring house, she cannot help but be attracted to him. In true Cinderella fashion, he is attracted to her, as well. She is practically and indentured servant; he is a rich engineering student: their path is not easy, especially when he does possess the same level of courage as Faten does in standing up to the constraints of their families and society. More important than their nascent romance, however, are Faten’s dreams of continuing her education. Marwan facilitates this through their very occasional meetings and notes passed through a friend, but eventually the duplicity required to fulfill her dreams catches up with her. It is at this juncture that we see the real strength Faten has, and we learn the answer to her earlier questioning of a traditional poem: “Should the worm be satisfied being stuck in the ground and give up on her dream of flying like the bird because she might be hunted?” (30). Faten’s choices leave her free in a way that other character’s choices have bound them within the confines of a traditionalist patriarchy, and we applaud her.