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Megan ([personal profile] mixedmetaphors) wrote2017-04-23 01:49 pm

Shuffle 3: Leila Aboulela, Minaret (2006)

Minaret cover"I am touched by her life, how it moves forward, pulses and springs. There is no fragmentation, nothing stunted or wedged. I circle back, I regress; the past doesn't let go. It might as well be a malfunction, a scene repeating itself, a scratched vinyl record, a stutter."

Leila Aboulela's Minaret elegantly weaves together multiple narrative threads: a coming-of-age story, a class story, an immigrant story, a story about discovering faith. The sections of the book alternate between Najwa's contemporary life as a domestic worker in London and Najwa's earlier, more privileged life. One of Minaret's particular strengths is the way these two timelines inform and echo each other, and the way they demonstrate the changes in Najwa's life as well as the ways she hadn't changed: what desires and values have been there all along, waiting to be unearthed or forged, and why did they go undeveloped before? In what ways might she still be stuck?

One of the most painful aspects of the book is Najwa's continual longing to return to safety of childhood and innocent parental love. Her repeated dream of childhood sickness and being cared for by her parents, being loved and treasured, was pretty heartbreaking. And Aboulela makes it clear that this isn't something Najwa's faith fixed or took away; it remains with her to the last page. But what faith, and becoming coming part of the religious community, does give Najwa is a way to understand and frame and not be defeated by what she cannot have:

I liked the talks at these gatherings because they were serious and simple, vigorous but never clever, never witty. What I was hearing, I would never hear outside, I would never hear on TV or read in a magazine. It found an echo in me; I understood it. No matter how much you love someone they will die. No matter how much health you have or money, there is no guarantee that one day you will not lose it. We all have an end we can't escape. I thought such talk would make me gloomy, would bring me down, but I would leave the mosque refreshed, wide awake and calm, almost happy. Maybe I was happy because I was praying again--not like when I was young when it was just to boost my grades or to complement my fast in Ramadan--but with the intention of never giving it up. I reached out for something new. I reached out for spiritual pleasure and realized that this was what I had envied in the students who lined up to pray on the grass of Khartoum University. This was what I had envied in our gardener reciting the Qur'an, our servants who woke up at dawn. Now when I heard the Qur'an recited, there wasn't a bleakness in me or a numbness, instead I listened and I was alert.

The parts I struggled the most with were her romantic relationships. In her earlier life, Najwa has an Awful First Boyfriend who treats her terribly but whom she loves. For years. In her contemporary life, she has a more ambiguous relationship, with the sensitive younger brother of her employer. I was uncomfortable with this because of the age difference (he's a university student maybe about twenty years younger than her), though it was clear they both respected each other and there's almost no physical contact, just a meeting of the mind and spirit. But the problem is that both men are sulky adolescents, and it just felt very tedious to spend both the past and contemporary sections with Najwa caring too much about sulky adolescents. Even when she, too, was a sulky adolescent! Aboulela's writing style is pretty straight-forward, and Najwa's voice is informal and almost chatty, so it was easy to get frustrated with her naive shortsightedness, but it was also easy to empathize with her fears and her longings.

But, thankfully, most of the book is about Najwa's relationships to her own history & identity and to her faith, and it's a quiet, thoughtful story about thwarted dreams, the loss of innocence, and seeking--working for--restoration.

Randomizing the list provided these three options for Shuffle 4:

Amy Sackville, The Still Point (2010)
Vesna Goldsworthy, Gorsky (2016)
Jemma Wayne, After Before (2015)

I'm not sure yet what I'll be reading. My library system has both the Sackville and the Gorsky, though my own lack of exposure to Russian literature is making me lean toward the Sackville. We'll see.