Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Leila Aboulela's Lyrics Alley, The Orange Prize, and American Novels I Mean to Read

Leila Aboulela won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2000.  I am spellbound by her stunning novel, Lyrics Alley, which was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers' Award and longlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize.  This lively, intricate story of a Sudanese family in the 1950s, with vibrant writing and a big, satisfying cast of characters, is reminiscent of Nadine Gordimer's novels.  It centers on the Abuzeid family, the relationships among Mahmoud Bey Abuzeid, a rich businessman; his two wives, the first a traditional Sudanese woman, Waheeba, and the second a young Egyptian woman, Nabilah, who longs to return to civilized Cairo; their children, and other relatives. The political upheavals of Suez, Egypt, Sudan, and Britain are still in the background two-thirds of the way through the novel.  It's not quite as political (yet) as Gordimer's work.

Aboulela deftly manipulates the divergent threads of the story.  She explores the characters' different perspectives with a pitch-perfect voice and third-person omniscient point-of-view.  One of the most interesting characters is Nabilah, a well-educated woman, distressed by the provincialism of Sudan; she questions her mother's choice to marry her off as a second wife.  Her marriage to Mahmoud is stressful. Although Mahmoud lives with Nabilah, he is devoted to his and Wahheba's  brilliant second son, Nur, who  is headed for Cambridge.  When Nur is crippled by a tragic accident, the family is stricken and Mahmoud spends much time at Waheeba's adjacent house. They must care for Nur, now a quadriplegic; Soraya, his cousin and fiancee, is devastated when Mahmoud insists on breaking off their betrothal; and Waheeba, furious at her family's fate, deliberately avenges herself on Nabilah. Aboulela's intelligent voice, precise word choice, and controlled storytelling make this one of the best novels of the year.

Meanwhile, the Orange Prize shortlist has been announced. The finalists are:

  • Emma Donoghue (Irish) - Room
  • Aminatta Forna (British/Sierra Leonean) - The Memory of Love
  • Emma Henderson (British) -    Grace Williams Says it Loud
  • Nicole Krauss (American) - Great House  
  • Téa Obreht (Serbian/American) -    The Tiger’s Wife
  • Kathleen Winter (Canadian) - Annabel

I am amazed that I am familiar with five of the six.  Last summer I read part of Emma Donoghue's Room, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize (not my kind of book). Krauss's Great House was a finalist for The National Book Award and Obreht's The Tiger's Wife has been hailed as an American masterpiece. Forna's The Memory of Love won The Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Africa).  Winter's Annabel was nominated for three Canadian awards. 

So it is safe to say we are in good company.

My wacky idea this year was to read all the American novels on the longlist, because I am an anglophile who needs to start supporting her fellow countrymen, but of course energy deserted me.  I have read two of the other four  American novels on the longlist (listed below) and would have been happy if Julie Orringer's beautifully written The Invisible Bridge had won.

  • The Road to Wanting by Wendy Law-Yone 
    The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer 
  • Swamplandia! by Karen Russell 
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan 
  • The Seas by Samantha Hunt

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