The cover of Bride of the Sea.

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A young marriage disintegrates, even as a beloved daughter is born; then, a shocking betrayal and disappearance followed by decades of rippling repercussions. Bride of the Sea, D.C.-area author Eman Quotah’s debut novel, follows those ripples across decades. It is a fast-paced, beautiful saga of family and identity. It is also a deep, immersive dive into the world of women and the choices they make when constrained by family and expectations.

Quotah’s essays and short stories can be read in a variety of publications, from newspapers like the Washington Post and USA Today to literary journals, such as the D.C.-based Gargoyle Magazine. She has written often about being a Muslim in America and her intertwined cultures, but Bride of the Sea takes her work in a new direction. This is a poet’s manuscript—a compelling story that comes alive in its lyricism.

Quotah was born in Jiddah, Saudia Arabia, to an American mother and Saudi father. Raised in both Jiddah and Cleveland Heights, Ohio, that experience lends a personal texture to Bride of the Sea, which features both cities. She paints vivid literary scenes of the towns that her characters live in, the foods they eat, and the prayers they recite.

Lyrical writing in a novel can sometimes move the plot slowly, creating a contemplative feel. Quotah avoids any shoegazing with an engrossing plot that never lingers too long, delicately touching on the beauty (and the ugliness) in her characters, their homes, and their relationships, while still purposefully moving through this aching tale of family and loss. Muneer, a doting husband, describes his wife: “The sound of her voice reciting ingredients to him. The way her lip and eyebrow jutted up to the right as she concentrated on chopping onions and cilantro for hot sauce.” Every detail creates a richer, more believable world for us. Every moment propels us forward.

Bride of the Sea opens on Hanadi, a grown woman in 2018, who has lived all over the United States and is remembering and dreaming about her mother. We quickly jump back to 1970, where her parents vacillate between joy over her impending birth and a deepening divide in their marriage. Her father, Muneer, desperately grasps at their diminishing connection as her mother, Saeedah, slips farther and farther away.

Saeedah kidnaps Hanadi after their divorce to prevent Muneer from finding her and taking her home to Jiddah to live with his family. Saeedah moves them constantly, any time she smells a hint of potential discovery on the wind, isolating them both from the world. She tells her daughter that Muneer has died, but Hanadi always knows inside her that this isn’t true, even as she grows into a young woman and tries to believe otherwise. Muneer’s heartache over their divorce pales in comparison to the crushing loss of his daughter, who he knows is alive but cannot find despite his trips back to America to search for her. Quotah deftly takes us between the three characters’ points of view, each lens distinct and persuasive.

Hanadi’s grandmothers are sisters, and her mother’s actions tear the families apart, sewing distrust about who knows where she might be. Muneer slowly loses hope back in Jiddah, eventually marrying again and having more children, but never recovering fully, always aching for his daughter.

More than ten years later, Muneer finds Hanadi again. She is 17, almost an adult, and she doesn’t know if she even wants a relationship with this man who is a stranger. But nothing matters more to Muneer. He cannot imagine a life without her, now that he’s found her. “She is everything he sees until the sliding doors close behind her. His vision expands, and he sees the haze has lifted and the sky transformed into a bright ocean blue that reminds him of home,” Quotah writes about Muneer dropping his daughter at work in Cleveland, wondering if she will accept him as a father and come home to Jiddah.

Bride of the Sea follows Quotah’s characters through decades, starting and ending with the singular Hanadi, who strives to find peace and acceptance within the choices she makes and the choices that were made for her. Quotah explores the roles of gender, family, religion, and culture within this coming-of-age tale. She creates such an immersive experience that we don’t even notice at first what’s missing, the years she skips over, the reasons for Saeedah’s restlessness—the puzzle pieces we must guess at and maneuver around. It works here, though; the mysteriousness adds to an overarching unease that pushes toward resolution. And her details add such believability: The scents on the page are so real we can smell them. The disapproving murmurs make us shrink, as if our own aunts and uncles and cousins are tsking and giving each other meaningful looks. 

Bride of the Sea doesn’t offer a neat, happy ending, even as Hanadi grows into a woman who can accept and appreciate the family and culture that play a part in defining her. She realizes that some things can’t be given back once taken, and learns to forgive her mother despite this. She will never have the answers she seeks, her life always missing those pieces that have been withheld. We wish we knew more, as readers, and long to understand Saeedah’s choices—and this connects us with Hanadi even more intimately. In the end, she grows up and creates her own identity, no matter the choices her parents have made, just as all children do.

Bride of the Sea. Tin House Books, 303 pages.