CHICAGO: Layla Al-Ammar’s debut novel, “The Pact We Made,” takes readers to Kuwait and the rituals and life of a Kuwaiti family. A mother and father live with their two daughters, one of whom is married. The approaching thirtieth birthday of Dahlia, the unmarried daughter, has the family on edge. Her marriage prospects are a source of tension with her mother, furthering her anxiety and keeping her distant. To her mother she is an anomaly, but a buried secret in Dahlia’s past has been slowly transforming Al-Ammar’s main character.
Readers first meet Dahlia as she entertains a suitor, a man who, like Dahlia’s mother, is thankful that she did not try to become a doctor, despite her good grades, because a wife’s place is in the home. Dahlia’s life is made up of only rituals, no choices: Morning rituals, cultural rituals, familial rituals and marriage rituals. The only time she can find an escape is when she draws — a hobby but not a worthy career, according to her father — and when she’s away from her family with her best friends Mona and Zaina.
But even as Dahlia escapes her familial pressures, she is never quite herself. At night, panic grips her as a yathoom, a devilish entity, sits on her chest until she cannot breathe and then crawls back into hell. The secret deep inside her is eating away at her. Neither Mona nor Zaina can help, because what has trapped Dahlia is her lack of control over her own life, her own body and her own future, as she reflects that “here, in this country, we are taught to listen to others, to subjugate our desires to the wisdom of the collective, the tried and true of tradition. Seek the approval of the masses, of society. Heed, above all, your parents. Protect your reputation and the honor of the family.”
Al-Ammar presents a story of families that enjoy the privileges of vacations abroad and certain freedoms and friendships that keep them afloat amid traditional struggles between generations. Dahlia has two lives, one created with a semblance of choice while the other has no choice at all. There are insights into loneliness and societal pressures that Al-Ammar weaves gracefully into a story that is difficult to tell. Healing must follow, and Dahlia will find out how, one way or another.