I was going to call this a review, but it’s not. It’s not at all. It’s just me blathering on about a book I like, and thinking you might like it too.
Here’s the book that’s been cheering me up for the last couple of dreich days:
Even the cover looks like sunshine.
I’ve been a fan of Leila Aboulela since I read her first book, The Translator, which I picked up pretty much at random in Malvern library a good few years ago. It’s a fascinating story about love and being far from home, and the best portrayal of Aberdeen in fiction that I’ve ever seen. I enjoyed her second novel, Minaret, and her short stories, Coloured Lights, but I always felt that she had a bigger book in her – not necessarily much longer, but richer, and more peopled. The Translator felt a little bit like a long short story (her short stories are masterful, so that’s not a criticism as such).
I first read Lyrics Alley, her third novel, fairly soon after it came out in 2010, having happily bumped into it in the library. I started dancing around, thrilled that she’d finally written the book I wanted her to write! I don’t buy hardbacks if I can possibly help it, so I put off buying my own copy. I was utterly thrilled to see that Edinburgh City Libraries was advertising an author event with Leila and Jonathan Falla for Refugee Week, and I immediately signed up for a ticket.
Well, Thursday came round and I got soaked to the skin repeatedly, was carrying a heavy rucksack, had been focusing on sestinas in poetry class, and really didn’t want to sit around town soggily waiting for a book talk. But I knew I’d regret it if I missed it. Leila Aboulela lives in Doha now, so I didn’t know how many opportunities I would get to see her!
Anyway, I wasn’t disappointed. The discussion was really interesting, but most of all, it was lovely to dive into the book again afterwards. (Signed copy! Chance to do my gibbering fan girl act again!)
The book is based around the story of Leila’s father’s cousin, the Sudanese poet Hassad Awan Aboulela, who started writing after an accident left him quadriplegic. It’s a novel based mostly in Sudan, but also in Egypt and London, about a family in the 1950s who are living out the changes in Sudan – a businessman, his two wives (one old, Sudanese and traditional; one young, Egyptian and modern), his sons (including the poet) and their female cousins (one of whom is the first girl in the family to finish school, and trains to be a doctor). There’s also an Arabic teacher who provides a contrast to the others, being more scholarly and religious – this is the character that Leila herself said that she most relates to. (Much better description of the book here.)
Although very family-based (Leila said in the talk that some people have criticised it for not being more political), it feels like there’s a whole rich world inside the book. It wasn’t a world that I knew much about, but the political background is definitely sketched out where necessary and there was an extremely strong sense of place in each of the locations. I loved all the interactions between the characters, which always seemed truthful.
I was fascinated by the discussion between Leila and Jonathan at the talk about how to write a ‘truthful’ story in fiction – how each of them had taken their own or their family’s experiences and turned them into fiction. Leila made the simple point that real life is not as organised as fiction! By writing as fiction not fact, she could get rid of 8 or 9 superfluous siblings and create the counterpoint between the two wives, who represent the battle of Sudanese and Egyptian influences at the time. She gives a good account of the factual background here.
She did, however, use her uncle’s poetry, in her own translations. I wasn’t much involved in poetry the last time I read the book, but having been completely immersed in poetry for the last few months, I found that the book had a whole new resonance for me! There’s been a lot of talk recently about the difference between poetry and lyrics (for example in Paul Muldoon’s upcoming Poetry Society Lecture) so it was interesting to learn about the tradition in Sudan at the time where poets would write poems and then they would be put to music. And where a poet could become a household name! There’s some talk in the book about how much to use colloquial language in poetry and where to stick to traditional forms – another thing I find interesting in modern discussion and perhaps one of the perennial questions.
Lyrics Alley reminds me a lot of A Suitable Boy, one of my favourite books ever, although Lyrics Alley is a good chunk shorter! (And less political, but I did end up speed-reading the purely political sections in A Suitable Boy.) Reading it is really immersive, and I was totally engaged with the characters and their situation. I would recommend making use of your library and getting hold of it soon! And if you do get the chance to see Leila talk, I found her very interesting.