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Beirut Hellfire Society

by Rawi Hage

Beirut Hellfire Society by Rawi Hage X
Beirut Hellfire Society by Rawi Hage
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  • Published Jul 2019
    288 pages
    Genre: Literary Fiction

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There are currently 26 member reviews
for Beirut Hellfire Society
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  • Borderlass (Belmont, MA)
    Wildly Good, Crazy Accurate, and Perhaps a Dance....?
    Rawi Hage, our author, through uncensored images of war and use of spare language simultaneously elegant and profane, provides us with one of the best novels about war anyone possibly could imagine... Using magical realism, he exactly captures the randomness of life and loss and the dark humor one finds in such circumstances... The symmetry and rhythm of his prose engage his readers in a dance from beginning to end - inviting you to join his characters who dance when words and religion by themselves fall short .. Not for the violence-averse, repressed or prissy set, this book would appeal to serious readers looking for an excellent read from a superbly talented writer... This book would appeal to those whose worlds were rocked by Margaret Atwood's "The Blind Assassin."
  • Shannon L. (Portland, OR)
    Good book but it wasn't for me!
    Rawi Hage's Beirut Hellfire Society was one of those books where each page was a renegotiation. One page I liked it and was glad I was reading it and the next page I hated it and felt I was wasting my time. By the time I finished the book, I knew. I did not like it. It was too too much for this old lady!

    In the prologue, we meet teenager Pavlov with his father, the undertaker. Pavlov's father is taking him to a secret crematorium high in the hills above Beirut. This crematorium is for outcasts who are denied last rites and graves within the city limits of Beirut. It is primarily for the use of the Hellfire Society, a mysterious, anti-religious sect who arranges for the secret burials. Unbeknownst to Pavlov, his father's "side job" has been to take care of these misfits' bodies.

    Chapter One is Pavlov's story. It begins several years after the prologue and his father has just passed away. He is approached by a member of the Society to step in and take over his father's work. Pavlov agrees to do this and, over the course of the novel, chronicles some of the lives of the both the living and the deceased residents of the torn and fading community of Beirut.

    Pavlov has little problem stepping into his father's shoes. While he spends a little time trying to resolve his own questions about the point of war or even life itself, he has become indifferent to death. If asked, Pavlov would probably have said that he identified more with dogs than people as he witnessed parades of coffins pass by the window of his family's home. Bombs continuously fall on these funeral parades. As the war continues, the remaining strong, young men go off to war leaving fewer and fewer available to be pallbearers. When transporting the coffins of unmarried young men, the pallbearers dance down the streets, giving the dead a combination wedding and funeral.
    Hage's characters, needing to be buried by the Society, are undesirable according to the laws of Lebanon. They are the homosexuals, the hedonists, the atheists and the sexual deviants. They are both colorful and intriguing. They are the strength and the downfall of this novel. Beirut Hellfire Society is the story of these characters and of people gradually being transformed by their geography.

    This story seemed so promising and I was intrigued for a while, then, Hage lost me. The Beirut Hellfire Society went from compelling and tragic to confusing and repetitive. Hage truly captured the mood and atmosphere of a 1970s war torn Lebanon but he didn't stop there. Trying too hard, he forced ornate devices on his audience that didn't work. For example, Pavlov's obsession with Greek mythology was unnecessary and contrived. When Hage began to meander I decided he was struggling for a conclusion in a world where war didn't end.

    Beirut Hellfire Society is worth picking up because it provides the reader with a clear tale of endurance and the predictable decline of a war torn society but the lack of cohesion let me down. Critics have praised Rawi Hage for his "fierce poetic originality" and "uncompromising vision." This may be true, but fewer outrageous and profane profiles would have served his purpose better. By the end I felt that this was more of a draft than a finished work. 

    Previous reviewers have cited this poetic passage from Hage's saga as a synopsis for the novel. It is beautiful and but worth repeating. This is a fable and the reality of life:

    "These few left-over Christians in the Middle East should leave, the Bohemian said. They should leave this land and spread out all over the earth. The world is vast and these early converts are holding on, in vain, to their mythologies, religion, and a handful of picturesque valleys and mountains. Who and what are they fighting for? They should leave. Leave this country to the Muslims, and then the Muslims will leave it to someone else one day. I have never understood attachments to land and culture. Look at them, sliding one coffin after another into the pit! They wasted the little life they could have had elsewhere. They were never tolerated, and they tolerated no one. The Gods of these lands are cruel, jealous, petty, and archaic. These converts should leave and roam the planet..."
  • Kathy F. (Renton, WA)
    To understand the anguish of outcasts
    Beirut Hellfire Society opens in war-torn Lebanon with Pavlov, then 16, accompanying his father into the mountains to participate in a bewildering burial ritual. Here we learn of the Hellfire Society.
    I appreciated the book and the way the author carried me into the sorrow and anxiety of living in a war-torn country. I would recommend the book to all who are interested in reading another viewpoint on religious rituals and the rigidity of society. A book-club would enjoy this book for the many avenues of discussion that can be followed, from civil war, to religion and atheism to loneliness and despair.
    Using humor and sorrow, Beirut Hellfire Society took me on a journey exploring the violence, loneliness, death and life during time of war. Thank you to BookBrowse for the opportunity to read and review an advance copy.
  • Julia A. (New York, NY)
    Unexpectedly Captivating
    I've read a few other books about the period of the Civil War in Beirut, but this one was very different from the rest. Without giving anything away, I will say that the central character, Pavlov the undertaker's son, who is himself an undertaker, has enough quirky traits to capture a reader like me. He loves the Greek classics; loves dogs more than people; and collects unusual friends, to say nothing of his unusual family, particularly Salwa the "hyena" cousin. The title Society is dedicated to providing cremation for the outcasts of conventionality. Pavlov's father is a charter member and the Society's undertaker, and when he dies, the Society approaches Pavlov to take over the role. The book is essentially a collection of anecdotes and character studies, unified by the personage of Pavlov and his work for the Society. It took me a little bit of time to get into the storyline, but once I did, I found myself fascinated and eager to learn what would happen next. There were even touches of magical realism, which I didn't expect at all. My only disappointment was the ending, which I won't reveal to avoid a spoiler, but even that, on reflection seemed to me appropriate, and the epilogue even had a note of redemption. I haven't read Rawi Hage's other books, but now I want to.
  • Vicky S. (Rancho Palos Verdes, CA)
    Slow to get going but engaging later
    I considered not finishing this book as I could not first connect with the story however I always tell myself to read 50-60 pages before deciding and I ended up enjoying the book and had moments where I did not want to put it down. I appreciated the work done by the undertaker's son to make the death of a loved one mean something for those left behind - whatever it was. The undertaker's son, Pavlov, was nonjudgmental unless it was about the living being cruel to the living. I need to think more about the role of dogs in the book and the relation to Pavlov's name.
    I'd just read an article in the paper about human composting instead of burial or cremation and I thought of this while reading the book and humans' varied responses to what to do with a body.
  • Jane N. (Little Egg Harbor, NJ)
    War Death and Life
    Can you imagine living through bombings, killings and funerals? And oh by the way, you are a young man who has lost his parents and you don't get along with your uncles! This the premise of the book. The story is at the same time harrowing and deeply moving. Reading this book made me realize how very lucky I am to live in America. At least here the rhetoric has not turned to civil war, at least not yet. I felt that I was living in Beirut during the war when I was reading this book. It is very well written and I recommend it to anyone who thinks that violence is the answer to anything. It is not! The book is at times profound and profane. The Hellfire Society buries the undesirable dead in a way that goes against the religious norms of the region. The members of this secret society cremate them. They do this at personal peril. It is a story of life and death and the need to be free. It is beautifully written. Death will in the end conquer life but the will to live, and live as you want, is strong. This comes across in the book. The book is well worth reading! Enjoy.
  • Amber H. (Asheville, NC)
    Great idea, okay execution
    I was initially drawn to this book because I wanted to learn more about war in Lebanon. The author does provide an interesting view of Pavlov's life. However, I felt like it was mostly disparate stories of Pavlov that didn't really come together until the last section of the book. The first three quarters I would find myself distracted and not engaged with reading more. It was an interesting idea, just not my style.


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