Beirut Hellfire Society: Book summary and reviews of Beirut Hellfire Society by Rawi Hage

Beirut Hellfire Society

A Novel

by Rawi Hage

Beirut Hellfire Society by Rawi Hage X
Beirut Hellfire Society by Rawi Hage
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  • Publishes in USA 
    Jul 16, 2019
    288 pages
    Genre: Novels

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Book Summary

A searing and visionary novel set in war-torn 1970s Beirut, from an author praised for his "fierce poetic originality" (Boston Globe) and "uncompromising vision" (Colm Tóibín).

On a ravaged street overlooking a cemetery in Beirut's Christian enclave, we meet an eccentric young man named Pavlov, the son of a local undertaker. When his father meets a sudden and untimely death, Pavlov is approached by a colorful member of the mysterious Hellfire Society―an anti-religious sect that, among many rebellious and often salacious activities, arranges secret burial for outcasts who have been denied last rites because of their religion or sexuality.

Pavlov agrees to take on his father's work for the society, and over the course of the novel he becomes a survivor-chronicler of his embattled and fading community at the heart of Lebanon's civil war. His new role introduces him to an unconventional cast of characters, including a father searching for his son's body, a mysterious woman who takes up residence on Pavlov's stairs after a bombing, and the flamboyant head of the Hellfire Society, El-Marquis.

Deftly combining comedy with tragedy, gritty reality with surreal absurdity, Beirut Hellfire Society asks: What, after all, can be preserved in the face of certain change and imminent death? The answer is at once propulsive, elegiac, outrageous, profane, and transcendent―and a profoundly moving fable on what it means to live through war.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Place: Beirut. Time: 1970s. But Rawi Hage's Beirut Hellfire Society is, actually, deeply set in any place consumed by killing and death during any time in human history. Fire is Beirut Hellfire Society's elemental core―inherited fires of grief and sorrow, justice and love. Fantastically framed, its envisioned images and scenes burn with a mythic intensity not easily forgotten. Truly a masterpiece." - Lawrence Joseph, author of So Where Are We?

"Beirut Hellfire Society crackles with the kinetic energy of a dancer…The absurd volume of deaths is also tempered by Hage's signature dark humor and stylistic playfulness."
- Toronto Star

"A wild, viscerally exciting and often bleakly funny novel of ideas. Comparisons aren't always useful, but this reviewer thought of a work…equally unflinching in its de-romanticizing of a subject most of us prefer to avoid: Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian." - Montreal Gazette

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Reader Reviews

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Rebecca R. (Western USA)

Cormac McCarthy Meets Orhan Pamuk in Modern Civil War
This gritty novel forces the reader to ponder the futility of mankind's never-ending history of wars.The absence of quotation marks propels the reader into the midst of war-torn lives in which morals, modesty, and motives are in a constant state of flux and are often absent. How sensible are wars when undertakers for different sides can exchange bodies but leaders can not exchange sensible plans to bring peace? The book can be shocking at times and confusing in a few places (is a scene a dream, a delusion, or real), but ultimately this book is a sad reflection on war narrated in the first-person by a mortician's adult son. I probably would not have selected this book in a book store, and I am glad I had the opportunity to read this as a member of BookBrowse.

Naomi Benaron (author of Running the Rift)

Beirut herllfire Society: A Dance of Life, Death, and War
In Beirut Hellfire Society, Rawi Hage creates a dance that is savage, devastating, tender, mournful, and darkly, wickedly humorous. The novel is loosely a modern-day version of Antigone, set during one year of the Lebanese civil war. Rather than a sister intent on burying her brother, the protagonist, Pavlov, lover of Greek mythology and culture, is the son of an undertaker following in his father's footsteps in his pledge to lay to rest those who have been denied a traditional burial. The story interweaves vignettes of an outrageous cast of characters, complete with talking dogs and ghosts, vicious gangsters, cross-dressing hedonists, and a niece who howls like a hyena, with Pavlov's journey to survive and wrest meaning from an existence in which war continuously tears apart the fabric of life, order, and meaning.

Hage writes with the incendiary passion of someone whose early years were shaped by the war that tore Lebanon apart between 1975 and 1990. In this work, life cannot be taken for granted from one minute to the next; streets are a chaos of rubble and destroyed buildings; the falling bombs are as omnipresent as the rain. Since childhood, Pavlov has watched the "parade of caskets" that winds toward the cemetery beneath his window. Death and life form a continuous dance that, his father teaches him, is forged in fire. With sparse, urgent, and wounding prose Hage lays bare the nature of war and its human consequences. The book is, as he states in the acknowledgements, "a book of mourning," but it is also a book of hope. Beneath the despair, Hage shows us that hope and life always burn beneath the surface, waiting to be kindled.

Shirley T. (Comfort, TX)

Beirut Hellfire Society
Set in a war torn Beirut, a multi-cultural, multi-religious city, the story of Pavlov is both tragic and brave. The Hellfire Society, into which Pavlov is initiated by his father exists to deal with the final wishes of both the unconventional and irreligious after death.

Although this book is not for the faint hearted, the many characters that Pavlov encounters are exquisitely developed, they are obscene, violent and pathetic in this civil war of the 1970s. The tender dog theme throughout serves to lighten the human tragedy.

It is an unusual and ironic tale by a master of language. and is well written
Recommended for readers interested in the continual strife of the Middle East.

Rosemary C. (Golden, CO)

Dramatically Displays the Horror of War
This is a hard book to describe, but I found it profound, touching, visceral, honest and full of dark humor. Hage writes beautifully, lyrically, angrily and starkly about living in a city consumed by war and death. The main character, a young man who is the son of an undertaker, and all the strange and haunting people with whom he interacts, all paint a vivid picture. I think this book would be a good one for a book group. There are many metaphors, references to classical literature, and some mysticism that could be explored. Hage has written a fine book that kept me engrossed.

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."

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.

...10 more reader reviews

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Author Information

Rawi Hage Author Biography

Rawi Hage was born in Beirut and lived through nine years of the Lebanese civil war before emigrating to New York. In 1992, he emigrated to Montreal, Canada, where he has lived ever since. He is a writer, a visual artist, and a curator. His writings have appeared in Fuse, Mizna, Jouvert, The Toronto Review, Montreal Serai, and Al-Jadid. His visual works have been shown in galleries and museums around the world. His novel De Niro's Game was a finalist for many prestigious national and international awards, and won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His second novel Cockroach won the Quebec Writers' Federation Award and was shortlisted for numerous awards including the Scotia Bank Giller Prize, the Governor General's Award, The Writers' Trust Award, and the Prix des libraires du Québec.

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