Split between two different narrative modes, Aboulela’s latest is both engaging and perplexing.


Three members of a British Muslim women’s group travel north to the Scottish Highlands, where their individual preoccupations turn increasingly surreal, leading them to redefine their attitudes and their futures.

Talking birds, phantom children, and physical metamorphoses are just a few of the surprises in this latest novel from an Egyptian-born writer who has previously used a more realistic style to explore the dilemmas of Muslim women often stranded between cultures. Aboulela (Elsewhere, Home, 2019, etc.) does begin her new work in recognizable territory, depicting a trio of friends who share a religion and immigrant background, but gradually proceedings shift into a more fantastical place. Salma, married to Muslim-convert David and mother to four British children, has enjoyed the most freedom, yet she fantasizes about the life she might have had in Egypt and is enjoying a risky phone dialogue with Amir, the man she didn’t marry. Moni is neglecting and endangering her marriage by devoting herself exclusively to the care of her son, Adam, who has cerebral palsy. Iman, youngest and prettiest of the three, yearns for a child but has just been rejected by her third husband and is now homeless. During a week together in a remote loch-side cottage, the women pursue private paths: Iman wears peculiar costumes and communes with a fable-sprouting Hoopoe, a sacred bird; Moni befriends a silent child who suddenly begins to grow alarmingly, like Alice in Wonderland; and Salma chases Amir through the woods. All three suffer painful physical alterations and journey through testing landscapes, but their friendship, previously fraying, helps sustain them until the Hoopoe leads them back. Aboulela’s exploration of the women’s problems of choice, faith, and commitment are as immersive as ever, but her dreamscapes, while imaginative and disconcerting, seem to sit oddly, at one didactic remove from the story.

Split between two different narrative modes, Aboulela’s latest is both engaging and perplexing.

Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-8021-4915-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Black Cat/Grove

Review Posted Online: Nov. 11, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2019

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Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

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A wild child’s isolated, dirt-poor upbringing in a Southern coastal wilderness fails to shield her from heartbreak or an accusation of murder.

“The Marsh Girl,” “swamp trash”—Catherine “Kya” Clark is a figure of mystery and prejudice in the remote North Carolina coastal community of Barkley Cove in the 1950s and '60s. Abandoned by a mother no longer able to endure her drunken husband’s beatings and then by her four siblings, Kya grows up in the careless, sometimes-savage company of her father, who eventually disappears, too. Alone, virtually or actually, from age 6, Kya learns both to be self-sufficient and to find solace and company in her fertile natural surroundings. Owens (Secrets of the Savanna, 2006, etc.), the accomplished co-author of several nonfiction books on wildlife, is at her best reflecting Kya’s fascination with the birds, insects, dappled light, and shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s collections of shells and feathers, her communion with the gulls, her exploration of the wetlands are evoked in lyrical phrasing which only occasionally tips into excess. But as the child turns teenager and is befriended by local boy Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, the novel settles into a less magical, more predictable pattern. Interspersed with Kya’s coming-of-age is the 1969 murder investigation arising from the discovery of a man’s body in the marsh. The victim is Chase Andrews, “star quarterback and town hot shot,” who was once Kya’s lover. In the eyes of a pair of semicomic local police officers, Kya will eventually become the chief suspect and must stand trial. By now the novel’s weaknesses have become apparent: the monochromatic characterization (good boy Tate, bad boy Chase) and implausibilities (Kya evolves into a polymath—a published writer, artist, and poet), yet the closing twist is perhaps its most memorable oddity.

Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1909-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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