Eman Elhelw reviews Bitter & Sweet by Amal Awad
by Amal Awad
Reviewed by EMAN ELHELW
Kicking off in a flooding kitchen, Amal Awad’s Bitter & Sweet, as the title suggests, is a story of the highs-and-lows of life. The life of Zeina, Palestinian-Australian chef, unfolds in Sydney’s inner-city restaurant scene with its fusion of cuisines, fine dining, and familiar casual eats. Through Zeina’s eyes, we experience the fresh wounds of a marriage breakdown, the struggles of keeping her father’s restaurant dreams alive in the decaying restaurant Casablanca, and the relationship dynamics of one’s forties. Bitter & Sweet sits amongst the many acclaimed restaurant-based novels of recent years, yet stands apart as a story where food is a main character. Casablanca is not only the setting through which Bitter & Sweet’s story takes place but operates as a metaphor for Zeina’s journey to happiness.
It is Awad’s gift of creating familiar characters experiencing familiar situations, which makes Bitter & Sweet an immersive read. Awad centers universal human experiences – the loss of loved ones, a marriage breakdown, job changes – to create charmingly relatable characters. As with most of Awad’s eight published books, Bitter & Sweet is a soulful comfort read that warmed my Australian-Egyptian heart. I initially found Zeina to be a guarded character that I struggled to relate to, but the countless elements of the novel which mirrored my own experiences slowly provided glimpses into our connection.
I became more invested with each thread I uncovered connecting Zeina and myself. I recognised the delicious traditional dishes of felafel, and kafta, served against the rundown interiors Casablanca in the many dinners I’ve devoured in Inner-Sydney’s oldest middle eastern institutions. The late afternoon icy swims at Bondi beach reminded me of my own frosty East coast dips. And Awad adds an extra unexpected thread when flashes from the past uncover a younger and impressionable Zeina’s time in Southern Spain working in the experimental kitchen of Isabella.
With Zeina, I revisit Alhambra in all its Andalusian castle grandeur. As Zeina takes in the Arabic scripture carved into the castle’s walls, I recall my own awe at the remnants of the Middle Eastern presence on Southern Spain. Zeina’s reflection that ‘she felt like she had returned to a place she had known once,’ stole the words I uttered to my Spanish host family in my exchange to Southern Spain from my own mouth.
Awad’s quietly confident storytelling creeps up on you slowly to leave you hungry for more. I realised early on that Awad had me hooked, when reading the novel feverishly one morning on the train and nearly missing my own stop. Through the non-linear novel structure, the layers are slowly peeled off our guarded Zeina. I couldn’t help but to be whisked up in the electrifying beginnings of her romance with the charming Ray while knowing of their impending separation. Awad cleverly paces the two timelines to avoid any premature sense of closure and keep you hoping for a happily ever after.
Awad maintains a calm tone throughout the novel to handhold the reader through its bitter twists and sweet turns. If there is one thing Awad has mastered, it is frustratingly hyperreal depictions of relationships that pull on the heartstrings of readers. As to be expected with any book that begins with Oscar Wilde’s famous De Profundis quote, ‘hearts are made to be broken,’ Awad shows us that love – familial, romantic, or friendly – hurts sometimes more than it heals. Nothing comes easy for Zeina, and no matter how much the reader is fingers-crossed-praying for Zeina’s upturn, it is a slow burn to success for our main character. Just when it appears that Zeina is on the precipice of relief, another bitter blow pushes her further down.
Awad’s treats each of her flawed characters with such tenderness that there is no space for villains – not even the heartbreaker, Ray. We are introduced to a cold and stoic Ray who appears to have as little love for Zeina as he does words. Yet, as the novel time jumps between the highs and lows of Ray and Zeina’s love story, we discover that Ray’s icy stature hides a deeply hurt man. And even when we think we will end the novel cursing Ray for his behaviour (see: the motel room mid-way through the motorcycle Blue Mountains road trip), his redemption is buried deep into the last half of the novel.
No character is left two-dimensional – though Nasser, Zeina’s father, remains stubborn through to his very end. The man proves to be many things – a poor business mind, a stubbornly-ill Arab man, and a hoarder – of both household furniture and secrets. Nasser is a man guided by a need for the bare necessity, with everything else being considered faff. A man who prides himself on delicious dishes yet doesn’t have the patience for renovations. Nasser who raised his daughter on his lonesome yet doesn’t stop to consider the weight of a thirty-year secret. Though he leaves Zeina with more than a flooding restaurant in his wake, we still love Nasser, in all his messiness.
The time jumps throughout the novel leads to the illusion that the reader has a false sense of the amount of time spent with the characters. I learned to love even the novel’s messiest character like a dear friend – Zeina herself. A novel that belongs on every bookshelf, Bitter & Sweet is a novel that captivates readers with its raw depiction of love, friendship, family, and most importantly, food.
EMAN ELHELW is an Egyptian-Australian woman who grew up on the lands of the Kaurna people (known as Adelaide). She currently works and creates on the lands of the Gadigal people in Sydney’s inner-west. Eman holds a Bachelor of Law/Arts from the University of Adelaide. Her works exploring growing up in diaspora have been published in Egyptian Streets. As a senior engagement consultant, Eman advocates for equitable access for culturally and linguistically diverse audiences.