A boy searches for answers, home, his identity, and his destiny after mysterious family circumstances transplant him from his native Zanzibar to London.
A veteran novelist who was born in Zanzibar and has long been a professor of literature in England, Gurnah (The Last Gift, 2014, etc.) offers a first-person narrative involving rites of passage for a character whose circumstances are similar to his own. At a pivotal point the narrator says, “I felt like a character at the end of a novel on his way to adventure and fulfilment.” Not so fast, for the protagonist has barely made his way through a third of this tale, and fulfillment might not be a realistic expectation. What little he's learned about the world has come from reading novels, a passion he inherited from his father, who has abandoned the household in something resembling disgrace, with the son sent to England to study business under the patronage of his more worldly, glamorous uncle. “Something broke in my father’s life a long time ago and I was the debris of [my parents'] disordered lives,” says Salim, as he has belatedly introduced himself. The source of this disorder remains a mystery to Salim even after the birth of a sister whose father could not possibly be his. He angers his uncle by rejecting business for the study of literature and finds a measure of independence as he experiences a sexual awakening. Yet his mother’s death brings him back to a very different Zanzibar, post-revolutionary and now teeming with tourists. His father, who had been all but silent throughout his son’s narration, now feels himself compelled to illuminate the dark secrets that have split his family, and he does so through a series of chapters that function almost like soliloquies, letting Salim know what his mother did and why.
Like a lot of similar fiction, this well-crafted novel finds its protagonist suspended between two cultures, a part of each yet apart from both.