Probably a partially autobiographical story, but one that Gurnah has not fully shaped into a coherent narrative.


The divisive legacy of colonialism afflicts three generations of African and English families in the Zanzibar native (now British) author’s moving yet ungainly seventh novel.

An initially unidentified narrator reveals events following the 1899 appearance of orientalist Martin Pearce in an unnamed village on Africa’s east coast, in what was then the Uganda Protectorate. Pearce (who had been robbed and beaten by his African guides) is taken in by Muslim “shopseller” Hassanali Zakariya. Later, having been rescued from his rescuer by fellow Englishman Frederick Turner (a district officer), when Pearce returns to thank Hassanali’s family, he falls in love with the shopseller’s beautiful sister Rehana. What happens next is withheld, pending lengthy chunks of historical and ethnographic background information—and the story leaps ahead to the early 1950s, as Gurnah (By the Sea, 2001, etc.) traces the fortunes of three siblings (in what was then Zanzibar): underachieving, virginal Farida and her brothers, Amin and Rashid (the latter, we gradually learn, has attempted to piece together the earlier story of Rehana and Pearce, whose relation to Rashid’s family will be even later revealed in a flurry of convoluted afterthoughts). The story does become more involving, as Gurnah details the bookish Rashid’s uneasy relationship with the confident Amin, Amin’s doomed love affair with a divorced woman (Jamila) who leads “a life of secrets and sins” and is involved in anticolonial political agitation, Farida’s own love for a man she cannot have—and Rashid’s departure to study in London (where he achieves second-class citizenship and learns “how to live with disregard”). But the complicated links joining Rehana, Pearce, Turner and Rashid’s family are themselves kept secret for so long that, while the opening chapters here take forever to build momentum, its concluding ones are hurried and overcrowded with last-minute explanations.

Probably a partially autobiographical story, but one that Gurnah has not fully shaped into a coherent narrative.

Pub Date: July 26, 2005

ISBN: 0-375-42354-0

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2005

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This book sings with the terrible silence of dead civilizations in which once there was valor.


Written with quiet dignity that builds to a climax of tragic force, this book about the dissolution of an African tribe, its traditions, and values, represents a welcome departure from the familiar "Me, white brother" genre.

Written by a Nigerian African trained in missionary schools, this novel tells quietly the story of a brave man, Okonkwo, whose life has absolute validity in terms of his culture, and who exercises his prerogative as a warrior, father, and husband with unflinching single mindedness. But into the complex Nigerian village filters the teachings of strangers, teachings so alien to the tribe, that resistance is impossible. One must distinguish a force to be able to oppose it, and to most, the talk of Christian salvation is no more than the babbling of incoherent children. Still, with his guns and persistence, the white man, amoeba-like, gradually absorbs the native culture and in despair, Okonkwo, unable to withstand the corrosion of what he, alone, understands to be the life force of his people, hangs himself. In the formlessness of the dying culture, it is the missionary who takes note of the event, reminding himself to give Okonkwo's gesture a line or two in his work, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

This book sings with the terrible silence of dead civilizations in which once there was valor.

Pub Date: Jan. 23, 1958

ISBN: 0385474547

Page Count: 207

Publisher: McDowell, Obolensky

Review Posted Online: April 23, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1958

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Romance and melodrama mix uneasily with mass murder.


An 18-year-old Polish girl falls in love, swoons over a first kiss, dreams of marriage—and, oh yes, we are in the middle of the Holocaust.

Jenoff (The Ambassador’s Daughter, 2013, etc.) weaves a tale of fevered teenage love in a time of horrors in the early 1940s, as the Nazis invade Poland and herd Jews into ghettos and concentration camps. A prologue set in 2013, narrated by a resident of the Westchester Senior Center, provides an intriguing setup. A woman and a policeman visit the resident and ask if she came from a small Polish village. Their purpose is unclear until they mention bones recently found there: “And we think you might know something about them.” The book proceeds in the third person, told from the points of view mostly of teenage Helena, who comes upon an injured young Jewish-American soldier, and sometimes of her twin, Ruth, who is not as adventurous as Helena but is very competitive with her. Their father is dead, their mother is dying in a hospital, and they are raising their three younger siblings amid danger and hardship. The romance between Helena and Sam, the soldier, is often conveyed in overheated language that doesn’t sit well with the era’s tragic events: “There had been an intensity to his embrace that said he was barely able to contain himself, that he also wanted more.” Jenoff, clearly on the side of tolerance, slips in a simplified historical framework for the uninformed. But she also feeds stereotypes, having Helena note that Sam has “a slight arch to his nose” and a dark complexion that “would make him suspect as a Jew immediately.” Clichés also pop up during the increasingly complex plot: “But even if they stood in place, the world around them would not.”

Romance and melodrama mix uneasily with mass murder.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-7783-1596-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Harlequin MIRA

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2014

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