Pregnant, unmarried and sentenced to death by her family, a young Arab woman eventually escapes from the Middle East and starts over in England. It’s not easy.
The woman’s name is Salma in her native land (probably Jordan). In England she’s Sally. The Jordanian-British Faqir narrates her third novel in short takes, alternating past and present. Then and now, in Jordan and England, Salma and Sally wink at us like a hologram. Faqir’s purpose is to show just how tenuous Salma’s life in England is, and as details of her past trickle out, we understand why. She lived a simple life with her Bedouin Muslim family, herding goats. In her early teens she and her boyfriend Hamdan became lovers. On learning of her pregnancy, he disowned her. Salma turned to her teacher, who had her put in prison so her tribe would not kill her. She gave birth on the prison floor to a girl she named Layla. The baby was taken from her instantly; Salma had no opportunity to suckle her. (In England, she tries to get her nipples excised.) Six years later, a Lebanese nun removed her to a convent; from there, an English nun escorted her by sea to England. Now she works as a seamstress in Exeter, in the West Country; her landlady is a volatile alcoholic. Salma is still crippled by shame and self-loathing. She imagines her brother Mahmoud stalking her, set to kill, but transcending those fears is her yearning for Layla, who she hears calling her. Tellingly, she can handle anger and rejection in her new life; it is kindness that is unbearable. Much of this is moving and poignant, if needlessly repetitious, but toward the end Faqir (Pillars of Salt, 1997, etc.) loses her way. Salma’s marriage to a gentle English educator and the birth of their son is skimmed over. It seems Faqir has the same difficulty with good news that Salma has with kindness.
The wretched subjugation of Muslim women overshadows the immigrant adventure story.