Behind the Sun is a political thriller set in Aleppo during the Syrian revolution, following what seems to be an ordinary family which each member of it carries a secret and an almost double identity.

When her brother Yusuf is arrested by the government’s secret police, Shams is torn from the normality of her routine by her desperation to find out who betrayed him.

The feared Branch 290 has been watching Shams’ family for weeks and she suspects someone close has been passing them information. But if there are betrayers amongst her circle, are they simply acting to save themselves, or are they settling long-held grudges?

Amidst the brutality and chaos, Shams no longer knows who she can trust. The Syrian revolution is at the door and Aleppo is the latest battleground.

How can you know if someone is loyal and trustworthy or playing an elaborate game of deceit? How do people behave when they are forced into the darkest and most dangerous of circumstances?

Few chapters in to the book, the reader becomes suspicious of everyone and suddenly every character present an untrustworthy trait, which Amelia Smith excels at, in making the police state she is writing about a reality in the reader’s mind. The fear of Shams is shared by reader and with every page we turn there is a genuine shiver at what awaits Yusuf and his family.

There seems to be a symbolic use of Shams and her family to that of Syria and Syrians, whether it was Smith’s intention or not, that was what came across to the reader; earlier in the novel Shams analysis her relationship with others “she was convinced that these relationships defined her and that without them she may cease to exist as Shams. Perhaps she only existed by what she was in contrast to other people. That was a scary thought. Then there was her father and mother to whom she had struggled to relate for twenty-three years – nineteen, if our first memories start at four.” Its almost a description of how people felt towards their ‘home’ Syria and its people, you hold an unconditional love for it yet there is the urge to leave it due to the struggle to fully connect with it.

This is emphasised further through Shams which the later chapters seem to explore her relationship with Syria which she loves but doesn’t feel fully engaged or connected with “This country is called Syria, and we may be Syrians, but we know nothing about this country. We were never allowed to know anything about this country, it belongs to somebody else. And even that is vanishing. There is no Syria anymore”

The novel is essentially about Shams and her family but as a reader, we didn’t fully feel engaged with any of the characters, maybe because none of them were developed in a way where they can be liked or disliked or even allow us to sympathise with them.   

The one thing that is explored in the book is the rather complicated relationship between the parents and Shams and Yusuf, there is a void, lack of understanding and communication, at one point Shams tells her mother “The guilt you and Dad harbour, it’s not healthy. Especially when you try to transfer it onto me.” “What do you mean?” “I just mean there are healthier feelings than guilt. It eats you up from the inside out. It’s corrosive.”

It is the troubled relationship with her parents that increases Shams lack of security and pushes her into searching for something that provides safety or a sense of purpose “in an environment like this she was not protected at all, but when the world as we know it starts to crumble around us human nature forces us to look for security in the smallest of details.”

War doesn’t only cause physical destruction but it destroys the soul of the country and changes its people, turning them into an almost sub humans devoid of empathy and integrity. This is witnessed throughout the book, even through the friendship of Rasha and Shams which is full of question marks and complication “Why is it we only think of relationships with lovers as instances that come and go, but when it comes to a friendship, we always presume it will last forever and rarely consider breaking it off?” There is clear jealousy from Rasha of Shams and Amin’s relationship but at the same time Shams is quite a passive and self absorbed character who fails to grasp her closes friend’s feelings.

There are characters in Behind The Sun that needed to be explored further such as Sharif the secret service police officer who at one point it seemed like Smith is going to be different to other authors who had written similar novels, as in giving Sharif a human side, by picturing him with his children and wife and giving us the background to how he met his wife but suddenly Smith changes her direction and again the focus turs to Sharif’s brutality but maybe that is reflective of the thin line that exists between good and evil.

“Everyone has a moral line, Rasha had decided, and the more someone’s actions upset us, the more it makes us feel differently about them. At some point they cease to be just a flawed human being and move into the realm of bad”

Behind the Sun is an interesting yet at times it is an uncomfortable read, the lack of empathy, trust and connection the reader has with the characters is probably the intention of the author to give us a glimpse of what life is like under a police state and to provide an insight into what a war does to people. The ending is an open interpretation but it does seem to suggest that every character in the book did what they believed was the best for Syria, yet it be very different but they all share the same love for the ‘old’ Syria. “Can you keep someone alive in your imagination? Is it healthy to do so? Does it compensate for the real thing, the warmth, the smell, the interactions? It occurred to Shams that often you appreciate people more in their absence as when they are there they are just there. You take them for granted, stop listening, stop interacting. In absence the mind has a wonderful ability to forget all the bad things and just focus on what is so special about a person, even creating an entirely new person altogether. But then if someone in your life represents only absence, inevitably you will forget about them completely. Which means you need both, absence and presence, to build up a complete picture or have the full experience with someone.

We have given the book 2.5 / 5