New Hanan Al-Shaykh Book, The Locust and the Bird Reviewed at Barnes and Noble

Hanan Al-Shaykh finally has a new work available. It has been sometime since Only in London came out and I was quite excited to hear about the new book. The Barnes and Noble review is mixed, but I will be reading it none the less. The book is part biography and part novel and does sound interesting, especially in view of her complete works in English. As with many foreign language writers she isn’t mentioned too often, but with 6 or 7 books in English now she is one of the best translated Arabic writers.a

The novel’s only significant weakness is its sluggish pace. Inevitably, the poetry-filled yearning characterizing Kamila and Muhammad’s years apart begins to grate after a while. And al-Shaykh’s decision to chronicle Kamila’s countless attacks of jealousy and insecurity proves exasperating, repeatedly miring the story in protracted nothingness. Equally unoriginal is Kamila’s realization that married life with Muhammad is not all bliss, what with children and domestic chores multiplying almost unabated.

Of course, there are exceptions. Occasionally, al-Shaykh will inject a surprisingly powerful element into descriptions of her mother’s long days and quotidian duties, as when she depicts Kamila’s disturbing (and successful) attempts to miscarry, a ghastly homegrown solution to unwanted pregnancy. And after Kamila is widowed, al-Shaykh poignantly has her express her newfound anxiety: “During our marriage, my endless pregnancies and exhaustion had left me isolated from friends and relatives. I’d seen the world through his eyes. After his death, it was as if I started out all over again.”

What really matters, however, is al-Shaykh’s major twofold achievement with The Locust and the Bird. To begin with, she has written a stirring but never hagiographic account of a woman — her mother — who defies almost every major societal and religious stricture governing women’s behavior in her time. Yet al-Shaykh also manages the remarkable feat of unpretentiously capturing a character’s philosophical relationship with art. A close reading of The Locust and the Bird reveals that — perhaps counterintuitively — young Kamila does not in fact live vicariously through film; she pointedly refrains from transmuting her hunger for the real yet elusive man she loves into a complacent satisfaction with the honeyed images of romance flitting before her eyes. Indeed, far from allowing films to become her life, Kamila emerges from the theater spiritually refreshed but further impelled to achieve her dream. And that, aside from being a profound notion al-Shaykh deftly encapsulates in literary form, is probably both the wisest and healthiest approach to art.

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