“The Singularity” by Balsam Karam

Balsam Karam (photo: Carla Orrego Veliz) Balsam Karam (photo: Carla Orrego Veliz)

In an unnamed coastal city—along a seaside drive—a woman searches for her missing daughter. Watching her is a pregnant woman who will soon give birth to a stillborn child. She’s stuck in a hospital with hallucinations of the death of her best friend, who was last seen buried under bombed buildings. The Singularity is a sweeping look at the generational grief of migration, narrated in a poetic rhythm that moves like an elegy. Written by Balsam Karam—of Iranian and Kurdish roots—in Swedish, The Singularity is now available to a wider audience (via a migration of its own) through Saskia Vogel’s English translation.

Within the first chapter of the story, the mother of the novel’s central family jumps into the ocean, unable to find her missing daughter. The only witnesses are a pregnant woman and a landscape of  equal parts skyscrapers and unrelenting desert. We see her every Friday morning, growing older and weaker, with her headscarf falling a little lower. This is the set-up for the first half of The Singularity, aptly titled “The Missing One”, which focuses on a family residing in a partially-concealed alley who now find themselves in a country whose landscape and soil seem culturally inhospitable; when they try to grow food, the soil rejects the seeds, and when they try to communicate, they are met with confusion.


The Singularity, Balsam Karam, Saskia Vogel (trans) (Feminist Press, Fitzcarraldo Editions, Text Publishing, January 2024)
The Singularity, Balsam Karam, Saskia Vogel (trans) (Feminist Press, Fitzcarraldo Editions, Text Publishing, January 2024)

Karam hinges the sparse plot on mothers, for it is through the connections of motherhood that the story evolves. There is the grandmother, sitting “where the sun does not reach and something darker and larger blooms”, waiting for her daughter to return. There is her daughter—a mother herself—who searches for her daughter who went missing from work one day. And there are the children, Mo, Mina, and Pearl, who now grapple with the loss of their sister, mother, and grandmother—looking for solace in increasingly faded memories. The story traces this movement of grief across places and time—revealing it as a tangible force that can be woven into families—and never taken out.

The children—the only beacon of light through the darkness of the alley, and of the novel—finally give up waiting for their mother and sister to return. The songs they sing cease, the games they play become dull, and their eyes grow tired of watching in wait. The children stopped trying to make a home of the space because the “military men” just took everything they built, again and again — the repetition of creation is only met with the repetition of loss until eventually, one of them has to end. Finally, “the children wait and listen, as usual barely moving in the alley.”

But just as the alley starts to close in on the family, and the claustrophobia reaches an all-time high, there are two moments of relief. The first is a ball the children find, a symbol of innocence among the rubble of their surroundings and the gloom of the novel. After this discovery, even though “a darkness deeper than before descends”, eventually the glow from the street light touches the children, who are now in “play and laughter with the ball that they have found and are now kicking around.” The second comes from a shift in perspective: the novel’s gaze is now centred around the pregnant woman who witnessed the Missing One’s mother jumping into the ocean.

In the pages that follow, she spends weeks in the hospital, and memory and reality begin to blur to such an extent that every line in a paragraph shifts in time. Trauma from the past is carried into the future—in dead childhood friends to stillborn children—culminating in the realization that “I come from a tradition of loss.”


The Singularity is a slim novel, so the repetition of paragraphs and phrases is a particularly interesting choice, creating the feeling of living the same day over and over again. The end of every chapter is always met with a return to “Friday morning”, where the characters always move “on the road leading to the city and the corniche” amidst the sustaining heat and rubble. Between the chorus line of the “return to the alley” and the poetic rhythm of sentences, the first half of the novel reads like a song. In the broader context of the plot, this rhythm feels like an attempt at turning an unfamiliar place into a home through the sheer power of routine, through strange yet elaborate procedures that evoke nostalgia—even if only of yesterday: “When they wake up it all begins again and they do what they usually do in the same order and in the same way as before.” When you’re living like this, measurements of time are rudimentary, dictated by the loss of yesterday and the struggle of today.

The unrelenting bleakness of The Singularity makes turning away from the book and into the world feel less like relief and more like reinforcement. After all, a similar landscape of rubble has dominated the news in the recent past. And so, even after the novel has ended, the repetition remains.

However, hope repeats as well. “I hope the children will one day take the other children’s hands and go elsewhere”, the mother says, wishing not to change the place, but to leave it altogether—as a collective. It is then no coincidence that the novel opens with the declaration, “Meanwhile—elsewhere.” If “great loss has already rolled in across the earth, grief and drought”, perhaps one can leave this soil and find a place where the land can be more nurturing. Perhaps one doesn’t have to do it alone.

Mahika Dhar is a writer, essayist, and book reviewer based in New Delhi. She is the creator of bookcrumbs and her short stories have appeared in Seaglass Literary, Through Lines and Minimag among others.