Two women, a pediatrician considered a spinster at 35 and a spontaneous, pregnant teenager, forge a strong, unlikely emotional bond after a short time living together in a 17th-century house in Rampe Valée, a crumbling neighborhood in contemporary Algiers.
Sansal’s (An Unfinished Business, 2011, etc.) second book to appear in English is as much a visceral meditation on time passing under shifting forms of ownership, empire and control as it is the story of women adjusting to unexpected motherhood. Lamia, an insatiable reader, takes Chérifa, an illiterate 17-year-old on the run from fundamentalists in rural Oran, into her city home. Both are independent sparks, at odds with Algeria’s economically depressed and emotionally repressive landscape. At first, Lamia’s connection to Chérifa is based solely on her desire to find her younger brother Sofiane, who last called mysteriously from Oran. Sofiane, too, is a runaway—but he is a path burner or harraga, desperate enough to burn his identity paperwork and undertake an often deadly journey via desert and water to begin again in Europe without a past. “Nothing is more relative than the origin of things,” Lamia says of her house’s pedigree before her Muslim family arrived from the mountains. A woman who lives in her imagination because the exterior world is inaccessible, unappealing and dangerous, she believes she will be the last person to live in the house as it falls into ruin. Nightmares grow like weeds in her mind. To cope with these, “I have active and passive moods and switch between the two as the whim takes me,” she says. This partially explains the uneven plotting and pacing. What Lamia does have is satellite TV, enabling riffs on Muslims abroad and the film Not Without My Daughter.
Sansal's richly drawn characters and the places where he embeds them will color readers' moods long after we leave their passageways.