Book Review: ‘Dark At The Crossing’ Lacks Heart

Review by Adrina Palmer

Haris Abadi, an Arab American, seeks to cross the border from Turkey into Syria to fight in the Free Syrian Army.

Elliot Ackerman’s second novel, ‘Dark At The Crossing,’ is a dark tale of life in the Middle east, a life completely unfamiliar to Americans. Of course, this is the purpose of the novel, to show the grass on the other side; to create an empathy for people Americans have a hard time empathizing with. This short novel, just 237 pages, somewhat succeeds in its mission to create insight but fails to motivate the audience’s heart. While this story is well told, several elements are missing, which we will get into, but first, let me tell you what the book was about.

Born in Iraq, Haris Abadi moves to America and becomes a citizen to improve his sister’s life after they lose their parents during the first Iraq War. For a time, Haris serves as a translator for the American military. Unsure of what cause he is fighting for as an Arab American, Haris decides to return to the Middle East. Before heading to Syria to fight the regime, Haris first ensures his sister Samia is well cared for in the arms of her fiancé.

Once in Turkey, Haris is promised passage into Syria by his contact Saladin1984, a recruiter for the Free Syrian Army. When Saladin stops returning emails, Haris is left at the border with no clue what to do. When an attempt to cross fails, he is stuck in a hovel with some local teens with no money, no passport, and no hope. With chronic flashbacks, Haris remembers his time in the war and the loss of his friend Jim, by Haris’ actions. His only hope to redeem himself is to fight for a worthy cause.

When a war researcher shows up for information, Haris finds a new method of helping in the war, working with Amir as a researcher for a local, wealthy businessman. Haris goes home with Amir and meets Daphne, Amir’s wife. Soaked in grief over the loss of their daughter, the couple finds different ways to cope with the loss. The strangeness of Amir and Daphne’s relationship soon becomes apparent to Haris as he forms an instant bond with Daphne. Amir looks the other way as his wife seeks solace in Haris; instead of anger, Amir confides in Haris and cares for him.

When an opportunity presents itself to cross the border again, Daphne joins Haris in an attempt to find her daughter. A young man, Jamil, offers directions, so long as he can go too. Despite being just fourteen, he wants to fight in the war. Amir refuses to go back to Syria and face his loss. Together, Daphne, Haris, and Jamil finally make their way across the border but find the war will have to continue without them.

One of the benefits of reading a book is being able to learn and understand the inner workings of another person’s brain. Ackerman fails to show us the inside of the protagonist’s head. When a book is turned into a movie, the plot is not as strong because of the inability to see inside people’s heads. While reading this, I felt like I was watching a poorly executed movie version of a book. Thoughts and feelings in this novel were displayed in flashbacks instead of taking the time to manipulate the audience’s heart.

The other issue with this novel is the outlandishness of the plot. First, the author fails to provide necessary information and I found myself several times going back to reread pages to see if I missed the information, or if the information just did not exist, usually, it was the latter. The sense of intimacy between Haris and Daphne is out of place for two strangers who have nothing in common except for a destination and a war-filled past. Amir’s acceptance of his wife’s infidelity borders on lunacy. Where was the outrage and hurt? Next, Haris doesn’t seem to even understand his own motives fully for fighting in this war, and yet we, the audience, are supposed to be able to comprehend his reasons in the third person. I assume Ackerman, a former Marine and Middle Eastern scholar, has a better understanding than the average American of the mindset for those torn by war in the Middle East, but he failed to convey these mindsets on paper. The book is a narrow path with a limited scope, and I honestly wanted to see more.

Several other areas of the book, I suppose, could be realistic but seem unlikely. Trading a dog for assurance of arrival seems displaced. No security at the gate between two countries in war, with just two men watching sitcoms may be possible but does not seem plausible. I really cannot get over the extremely premature intimacy between Haris and Daphne. Their relationship is by far the most implausible part of this novel. More pages and more time could have communicated a more believable chemistry between these two people. Daphne herself was an enigma. A blond-haired, blue-eyed, half-Christian, half-Muslim woman, chain-smoking with a 1920s mysterious demeanor was as unrealistic as she was enjoyable to read.

I cannot say I enjoyed this novel but do feel the purpose and intent Ackerman was hoping to attain was quite noble. I think he left a lot of himself out of the telling, which left an undecorated canvas. More heart was needed, along with more understanding of the protagonist’s thoughts, especially for a novel hoping to elicit compassion and rapport. If you prefer a cleaner novel, one which does not fuss over emotions, you can pick this book up now on Amazon or your local bookstore.

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James McDonald
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