THE STORY THIEF begins with an unlikely scene: in a middling Portland hospital, a stillborn comes back to life, and her skin turns an inexplicable, vibrant cobalt blue. This is the beginning of Elspeth Noura Rummani, though it’s not even close to the start of her own family’s tale.
As things stand, her parents are newly divorced, her mother is struggling with long-term mental illness, her branch of the family is a pariah in the larger Rummani clan, and their ancestral city is ground zero for Palestine’s second intifada. But Elspeth’s blueness invokes a time when things were different: the Rummanis were one of the wealthiest soap-making families in the old city of Nablus, when their blue soap was a symbol of a famously grand gesture of love between an unlikely couple. Now, 150 years later, only one person fully understands the human fractures that spider through what remains of their family: the storyteller Nuha, Elspeth’s old aunt, who is determined to raise the girl and fulfill a long-ago promise to protect the family’s sense of identity.
Told inside the frame of Elspeth’s childhood through age twelve, the novel unfolds as a series of folktales that gradually reveal the secrets Nuha has kept from her family since the chaos of the 1948 Nakba, calling into question that sense of identity she swore to protect. As a queer woman, she understands something about being different, but she can’t predict how proud Elspeth will be of all that sets her apart, nor how her fight against peers’ cruelty will bring the family together.
The novel explores what it means to tell a story, steal someone else’s story, tell lies, tell the truth by telling lies; as a girl seeks to understand whether the magic that made her is a force good, evil, or just blind chance.