Leila Aboulela’s latest novel is an intriguing and moving story of displacement, love and compassion. What would it be like to give up everything and everyone you know and be suddenly taken to a completely alien culture? This question is subtly echoed in each linked story – whether it is to be transported to the primitive conditions of the Caucasus, to the Russian court, or from Khartoum to Scotland. This novel is a nuanced tale of homelessness and homesickness where parallel stories of displacement intertwine and throw light on identity and home, and what it means to belong. The novel also addresses the changing interpretation of what is meant by jihad and also the human search for the spiritual through Sufism.
In 2010 Natasha, who has a Russian mother and a Sudanese father, is teaching in a university in Scotland. Fascinated by one of her students, Oz she is drawn into his family. He introduces Natasha to his mother, Malek who owns Imam Shamil’s sword, and the dry academic history Natasha has been researching is vividly reimagined. Everything is further intensified when Oz is arrested.
In the mid-19th century Imam Shamil is leading his people in a jihad against the Russians in the Caucasus, a mountainous land of stunning beauty. In Georgia, Anna a member of the aristocracy has a young family and, against advice, is spending the summer close to the border with the Caucasus.
Both a historical novel and a contemporary story, Leila Aboulela writes with precision and clarity. She can be to the point: ‘It was Tony, who since my mother’s death has been plaguing me with his sadness.’ And she can write sinuous, evocative prose: ‘Anna’s impression was of a tall, slim man hemmed in by his surroundings, forced into an extraordinary stillness, a pooling of shadows and energy, a lull of density and strength.’
Through the power of her language and description, this novel not only made me think about the dislocating experience of being uprooted from everything familiar, it made me feel it. As the history of jihad and the tragedy of displacement is brought to light for Natasha, so it is for the reader.
Three times longlisted for the Orange Prize Leila Aboulela is a writer who deserves to be read by a much wider audience. This is the first of her novels I’ve read but I’ve already started on her debut novel, ‘The Translator.’
She will be speaking at the South Bank as part of ‘Meet the author’ to discuss ‘The Kindness of Enemies’ this Thursday 1 September at 7pm. Free, but you need to book.