Minaret – Leila Aboulela (2005)

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When I was scanning a few book blogs the other day, I came across Minaret (Leila Aboulela) and picked it up from the library a few days later. I was intrigued by the topic, it was fairly short (matches my current summer levels of concentration), and it fit in well with my current focus on reading more POC authors. So, I picked it up last weekend, and then finished it on Sunday evening. (Quick read indeed.)

Aboulela is a Sudanese author, and this fictional narrative traces the spiritual (and literal) journey of Najwa, a Sudanese woman whose family is caught up in a big corruption government scandal, leading to them living in forced exile in London.

It’s an interesting story, but for some reason, I wasn’t too taken with it. Was it the writing? (It’s written in a very simplistic manner, but I’m not sure why that was the case. The protagonist was not a simple person, and her life was not straight-forward. Perhaps the simple style is used as a foil to reflect the complexity of her life? Not sure.)

Anyway, few contractions, few complex sentence structures, and pretty bare-bones descriptions… Not usually a big fan of that style, but I kept reading… (The reviews were so awesome, I thought that I was missing something, and perhaps this would all clear up by the end of the book…)

As the reader follows Najwa’s journey, both geographical and otherwise, we learn that she is a middle-aged woman whose rather coddled lifestyle is changed overnight when she is forced to move to England in exile, and live a life of servanthood for the other Sudanese ex-pats who are more wealthy.

This come-down is hard to take at first (naturally), but as the book progresses, Najwa learns how to live this new life. It’s helped by her attraction to the Islamic faith, although she was secular whilst she was in Sudan.

As the book progresses, readers follow her as she becomes a more religious and more devout Muslim woman. Interestingly, she ends up by the close of the story as being much more religiously conservative than she was at the start of the book. I think other reviewers have loved this title as it shows a woman becoming more focused on becoming a strict Muslim, and perhaps this is more typically depicted as a male journey? Not sure, but a lot of great reviews were blurbed on the cover. However, I was not quite as taken for a number of reasons, really.

First, there were some obvious proofreading errors which someone should have caught before it went to print (e.g. repeated or missing words etc.). With so much electronic editing help that is available now, there are few excuses to let this go to print without revisions. It became annoying after a while and was a distraction from the plot. (The author also goes on and on and on about how much the protagonist loves Boney M’s music. OK. We get it. Sigh.)

Second, the protagonist has some strange relationships with people. At first, I put this down to her forced relocation and the new culture and general life disruption, but then, as the story progresses, she ends up falling in love (sort of) with a nineteen year old son of her boss’ family, a young man who is decades younger than she is and who is a lot more radicalized than she is. Of course, problems arise…

I don’t know. It all got a bit confusing with regard to who is who and how they fit into the structure, so that, at times, I just gave an impatient sigh and then checked with a heavy heart how many more pages until the end…

Add to that the fact that the novel plays with time, and you’ve got one lost reader.

So – it wasn’t that great a read for me in the end (in case you haven’t picked that up yet!). I think that some of the reviewers were tripping over themselves to like this book for politically correct reasons, because I ended up with quite a different opinion at the end.

So, just an OK read for me in the end. Meh.

The Limit – Ada Leverson (1911)

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Owing a review to the great Mike Walmer who had sent me a copy of Ada Leverson’s The Limit last weekend, I read this title. Mike is an excellent promoter of under-estimated and under-read authors, had sent an irresistible taste of this novel, and although I wasn’t familiar with either the title or the author, I plucked it off the pile at the end of last week. And what a fun read!

Leverson was a British writer who is known for her friendship with Oscar Wilde and as a turn-of-the-century witty novelist. Her friendship with Oscar Wilde was tested when he was accused of being gay (at the time, a crime) and when no hotel or inn would accept Wilde as a guest, Leverson and her husband opened up their home as a place to stay, a generous gesture which would lead to “serious challenges” for the Leversons’ other friendships in the future.

So – to the plot: Valentia and Romer are a happily married couple, but Valentia is slightly dismayed that Romer isn’t quite as interesting as she had hoped he would be. For excitement, she turns to Harry de Freyne, her dashing artist cousin, much to the consternation of others in her social circle. Daphne, Valentia’s younger sister, needs to find a husband and a visiting American millionaire seems to fit the bill for the family, but Daphne would much rather marry a young professional soldier. And then there’s Miss Luscombe, Mrs. Wyburn, Miss Westbury, and a young man covered in tattoos with a hobby of collecting theater programs.

So – tons of characters to keep track off, but as with any social commentary in the vein of Jane Austen, you get the hang of who is who and after whom, and by the midway point, you can clearly follow the various machinations of the social system in this small world.

I mentioned Jane Austen, and this narrative is reminiscent of her characters and their struggles to meet and marry the right people. I did at times get a tad confused, but a quick check of the back cover sorted that out in a jiffy. Lots of rather funny repartee between the characters, and loads of strong description of life in London at the fin-de-siècle, this was a quick and rather fun read.

Thank you to Mike!

Annie John – Jamaica Kincaid (1983)

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Since I’ve been digging more deeply into authors (and characters) of color, Jamaica Kincaid’s name has kept cropping up and so when I saw this title in a thrift shop the other day, I picked it up with interest. After struggling mightily with another book and finally admitting defeat, it was with somewhat relief that I picked this one up and found it to be a joy to read. I loved it and will definitely be picking up more of Kincaid in the future.

So – this was a fiction read, a bildungsroman (posh way of saying “coming of age”) that follows a young girl growing up on the Caribbean island of Antigua. It starts in the middle of her childhood and follows to her teens when there is a sudden change that happens to her that affects all her relationships, particularly that between herself and her mother. Previously adored, the teen protagonist now faces her mother with unexplainable rage and resentment, and the reader watches how this enigmatic development affects her life as she grows and changes. It’s pretty hard to watch but understandable for the most part as who, at some point during their teen years, wasn’t sorely embarrassed by one’s parents at one time or another for no particularly compelling reason?

So, as mentioned, protagonist Annie knows that this is how she feels, but doesn’t really understand why; with nothing to put her finger on, the closest that she is able to come to is describing it as “carrying the thimble that weighed worlds” deep down inside her. Who would understand that, she thinks sadly? No one, and her days go by with her repelling all that seemed perfectly fine until a few months ago with the arrival of that internal thimble.

Annie’s early to mid-teen years were deliriously happy with a mutually adoring relationship between her mother and herself, but once that dark feeling is established, things change for the worse and both of them are confused and frustrated by this sudden change. It’s never mentioned, but then neither of them has the right vocabulary to do that. (It’s fairly typical teenaged angst, but when you’re going through it, it’s a big deal, right?)

The narrative is structured as a series of eight chapters, each one describing a particular episode in Annie’s life (big and small) and spotlights the ebb and flow of school friends, confusion about this sudden dissatisfaction of almost everything in life, and no tools to impact it either way. I would think that anyone who was a teenager (or who knows a teenager) would be able to relate on some level, really.

The depths of the descriptions of the lushness of Annie’s life on Antigua reflect the depth of the introspection that is seen through the PoV of Annie. She is a ferocious and witty character with a fearless attitude to life. It’s equally frustrating and admirable at the same time, really.

This was a fabulous read on a rather endless plane journey, but the time passed really quickly (which underscores how good the read was). I loved loved loved this book.