Novel Thoughts: Late For Tea at the Deer Palace

Tamara Chalabi’s Late for Tea at the Deer Palace tells the complex story of a woman’s search for her identity amid the turmoil surrounding her Iraqi family. Chalabi’s family was one of prominence in Iraq several decades ago and has struggled immensely during the many regime changes that occurred during the twentieth century.

Writing a memoir and maintaining objectivity are among some of the most difficult tasks of writing in general, but Chalabi is adept at handling the reality of her family’s situation. While her voice and emotions are evident in the text, she does a fine job of portraying her family members in a way that is not clouded by emotion. Her story, the story of how conflict in Iraq has shaped her life, doesn’t actually begin until the later part of the book, allowing readers to familiarize themselves with the context in which the story is set to the point (almost) of forgetting the book is a memoir.

Chalabi seems to struggle most of all with the connection to her grandmother, Bibi. She finds herself attracted to many of the same social figures Bibi was drawn to, despite the fact that many of these figures are long dead. Bibi seems to represent true roots in the story. Although she lived in exile for many years, Bibi always remained faithfully and authentically Iraqi. Chalabi’s own story is written across the borders of many countries, and her ultimate search for how these different identities culminate within her is the crux of the book.

In Late for Tea at the Deer Palace, readers are forced to confront the pitfalls of memoir, fraught as it is with inaccuracies and inconsistencies. While Chalabi successfully conveys the nature of her family members without excessive emotion, the conversations, actions, and reactions are keenly specific, calling their accuracy into question. Because of this, readers should take into account the capacity for misinterpretation and incongruous versions of the same story while they are reading.

Late for Tea at the Deer Palace provides readers with remarkable insight into a culture with which many of us are unfamiliar. Sure, we have the media portrayal of life in the Middle East; we know what the television tells us. But in reading Chalabi’s book, readers will be able to put a face on the conflict we’ve heard about and read about for so long. Chalabi’s account is personal and leaves readers with a sense of the way humanity is affected both by conflict and by the search to figure out who we are.

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