The book starts off quietly and gently, almost too quietly—the same momentum is sustained throughout—but gradually draws the reader into the world created by the author. There are fascinating glimpses into the world of Sudan in the 1950s and the tentative forays into modernity, all seen through the eyes of a wealthy and influential family that has had its share of tragedy and relationship conflict issues.
It is the world of the powerful patriarch, Mahmoud, married to two women. The first and elder wife Hajjah Waheeba is from Sudan; traditional and hidebound, limited by the boundaries of the hoash, (the open air kitchen) while Nabilah, the Egyptian second wife, is younger, glamorous and modern with very different and firm ideas of what she wants from life. Intertwined in this triangle are the lives of the various children from both marriages, in particular, the brilliant and sensitive Nur, who is betrothed to his cousin Soraya. A freak accident while swimming leaves Nur paralysed and completely dependent on others for all his needs. While the wealth of the family does make it easier in the sense that they can afford to have him looked after round the clock, all other aspects of his life like education in a University in England and marriage with Soraya are no longer possible. The tender and fragile love story makes a transition from the concrete, physical world to the realm of poetry and song. It is in that world that Nur is able to express the intensity of his love and longing and it is finally this world that leads to his fame and success.
The novel explores themes of love and faith in an understated way, underscoring the conflicts that arise from different personalities populating the same family space. There is also the parallel current of political upheaval in the neighbouring countries of Sudan and Egypt in the twilight of the setting of the imperial English sun in those parts that echoes the personal upheaval in the lives of the characters whose lives are significantly affected by these changes.
The alleys of Khartoum are as vividly evoked as the streets of cosmopolitan Cairo and the differences between the two are nowhere as apparent as in the warring wives’ personalities and their approach to life and traditions. The issue of female circumcision and its traumatic aftermath forms a part of the ...
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