An immigrant father’s silence about his background roils the life of his family in England; in this awkward eighth novel, Gurnah (Desertion, 2005, etc.), a Briton of Zanzibari descent, revisits the theme of alienation.
It was almost love at first sight. In 1974, they were working in the same factory in the English town of Exeter. Maryam was 17; Abbas was 34. Maryam was a dark-complected foundling, abandoned outside a hospital. Her foster parents, Indian immigrants, after some initial kindness, began treating her like a slave, so it was an easy decision to elope with Abbas, though she knew virtually nothing about him. He proves a good husband, and they have two children, Hanna and Jamal. Though he is loving with them too, Abbas never opens up about his background, and this becomes a source of frustration for Maryam and the kids. Who is this gentle, withdrawn man? He was born in Zanzibar. His family were Indian Muslims, dirt poor. His father, a subsistence farmer, was a tyrant, but Abbas escaped to a teacher training college. A bright future was doomed when he was tricked into an arranged marriage; his bride was already pregnant. At 19, Abbas fled Zanzibar and became a sailor for 15 years before settling in England. It is his irrational shame at abandoning his deceitful wife that has kept his lips sealed. The novel begins with the 62-year-old Abbas collapsing at home: It’s the first of three strokes. Maryam pressures him to tape-record his memories. Gurnah moves jarringly between past and present, in which the grown children, better at life than their parents, are discovering sex and confronting racism. More damagingly, the author disregards fiction’s first commandment: Show, don’t tell. So the family stays out of focus, less a unit than four individuals struggling with their own destinies.
The talking cure has come almost too late for the oddly prim ex-sailor and his family. There is nothing to involve the reader in this protagonist’s dilemma.