Novelist and memoirist al-Shaykh (One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling, 2013, etc.) delivers an elegant story of a friendship that is anything but easy.
Huda and Yvonne are both Lebanese with long memories of civil war and oppression but with little else in common: Huda is Muslim, Yvonne Christian; Yvonne is a touch flighty, Huda steadfast. And, as the opening scene reveals, though born beside the sea and now vacationing with her friend on the Riviera, Huda finds the sea depressing, still puzzled by a fatwa on the part of her cleric father commanding that a woman “go with your sisters or female relatives to the sea and expose yourself to the powerful waves and the spray so that they enter you, like a lawful husband entering you….” Yvonne, conversely, likes nothing better than diving from high rocks, daringly, with as little clothing as possible. The two are different in love as well, though, as the story winds its way across space and time, they wind up sharing a man who is working his way through a strange fatwa of his own. There are profound differences between Hisham, a Sunni Muslim, and Huda, a Shia, and of course between him and Yvonne, as if to emphasize how complex but also unexpected, and resolutely modern, so much of Middle Eastern mores can be. Huda, who lives in Canada but has gone to London to work on a theatrical production, turns out to be the strongest of the three principal characters, despite her shyness. Al-Shaykh’s novel is full of quiet regrets as it speaks gracefully to the challenges of friendship, challenges that threaten to drive the two women apart but that, in the end, instead strengthen their bond.
Another winning book by one of the most distinguished Arabic-language writers at work today.