Joey Harb has no fighting spirit, despite his surname meaning “war” in Arabic. He’s aimless and apathetic: meandering through his young life in western Sydney as a production assistant at Woolworths, while being spoiled by his grandmother Elaine, doing drugs with his good friend Kyri and annoying his mother Amal. Everyone, he thinks, “feels the need to judge his existence”, but that does not push him to do anything.
Nothing changes when he finds himself among a group of young men arrested for a violent sex crime. The fact that he views the potential two-year prison sentence as “doable” suddenly adds a layer of meaning to the novel’s opening sentence, which tells us he likes his banh mi with some chilli, “because it numbed his mouth and he liked numbing”.
It’s this passivity that makes the main character in George Haddad’s Losing Face so both frustrating and endearing. In a strong, multi-layered story, which follows Joey and Elaine in alternating chapters, Haddad presents us with the impact of intergenerational trauma, woven through a sharp appreciation of modern masculinity and its underlying misogyny. Dependence, bitterness, complacency and abandonment underpin the characters’ stories, but it’s the examination of consent that inspires the most thought.
The author’s portrayal of rape culture is skillfully manipulated: realistic and confrontational, and not simply used as fodder for Joey’s growth as a character. Joey knows something is up from the moment the young woman is approached by her peers, but her silence in the face of what is unfolding in a public park is telling. It’s a subtle and profound reminder that it’s not a ‘yes’ if there isn’t a clear ‘no’; the limited attention given to the young woman throughout the trial reflects the general lack of empathy and justice that victims face in the public sphere.
Haddad colors the crime scene with drug use, in a clever reminder of our ability to recognize and right wrongs even through obscure judgment. It behooves the reader to see things for what they are: the consequences of an insistent patriarchal culture that does not stop to consider the rights and needs of others in pursuit of its own needs; the law that can engender an attitude of acceptance in men, whatever their origin.
These overarching themes are enhanced by the small details that place the narrative vividly in western Sydney: upmarket Range Rovers and four-wheel Mercedes in Greenacre, a suburb “trying too hard to catch up with other parts of Sydney”; the queues at the barbershops of Bankstown; the bubble tea craze in Canley Vale; and the Virgin Mary pendants worn as insignia around the necks of a particular generation of Lebanese women.
One of those women is Elaine, Joey’s doting grandmother, who has a secret habit that threatens to undo the life she sacrificed so much for as a new wife and new migrant to Australia. Even after decades on Earth and many years as a widow, Elaine still cares about saving face in a community that thrives on gossip. she has experienced too much otherness to risk further ostracism. Her efforts to cover up her own indiscretions are compounded by her need to protect her wayward grandson. In many ways, she is the heart of the novel and the moral center of the family. But it’s her daughter Amal, Joey’s mother, that I would have liked to see more of. As a first-generation Australian born, her story would have complexities and contradictions worth exploring: she has spent the past decade raising her boys as a single mother and is finally ready to live for herself , if given the opportunity.
Losing Face is rich in scope and substance, but it’s not the quintessential coming-of-age story. There’s no sense Joey being any wiser when you turn the last page. In this vein, Haddad wrote something of a universal truth for a particular type of Sydney subculture, embodied by a character whose mistakes are brought about by a life lived at the intersections of identity, the lack of role models who have navigated the same in-between struggles, and family tensions complicated by traditions and debts dating back to the old country.
Haddad’s characters don’t have the luxury of reuniting or rising above their lot in life. Instead, they’re just trying to navigate the here and now. Despite this, and in a move of impeccable storytelling, Haddad offers them hope. For example, Joey’s only kiss in the story, when “his whole universe folded very tight for a second before bursting into absolute and unequivocal harmony”, and he’s about to discover a whole new world.
This hope is subtle, redemptive, simple, and it makes Losing Face a breathtaking work: an evocative exploration of what it means to falter and toss, to rise each day knowing that your setbacks are rooted deep within you, and show up for the people you love even if they’re as screwed up as you.