An uneven collection from a gifted writer.


Tales that take readers from Scotland to Sudan.

Aboulela has earned international acclaim for her fiction. Her work has appeared in prestigious journals, and one story republished here—“The Museum”—won the Caine Prize for African writing. In novels like Minaret (2005) and The Translator (1999), the author has given voice to characters who choose to—or are forced to—navigate two worlds, and she explores themes of immigration, alienation, and assimilation in the stories collected here. A chance encounter with a former classmate on a flight from Sudan to England compels a young woman to reconsider the choices she’s made in “The Ostrich.” The heroine of “Summer Maze” is the teenager Nadia; when the girl leaves her home in London to visit Egypt with her mother, Aboulela captures the complexity of her identity in passages like this one: “In Cairo, she was a stranger, but a stranger who went unnoticed, who was not tricked into paying extra for taxi rides and souvenirs.” A Scottish convert to Islam travels to Khartoum to meet his fiancee’s family in “Something Old, Something New,” and his experience isn’t quite what he expects. “He had thought, from the books he’d read and the particular British Islam he had been exposed to, that in a Muslim country he would find elegance and reason. Instead he found melancholy, a sensuous place, life stripped to the bare bones.” Such passages of clarity and insight are all too rare in this collection, though. Aboulela seldom dips beneath the surface of the narrative, and, when she does, she doesn’t linger. Given that so many of the settings and situations are similar across these stories, a sense of sameness sets in. And some of the shorter entries feel more like writing exercises or gestures toward a story than finished works.

An uneven collection from a gifted writer.

Pub Date: Feb. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2913-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Black Cat/Grove

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2018

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It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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What's most worthy in this hefty, three-part volume of still more Hemingway is that it contains (in its first section) all the stories that appeared together in the 1938 (and now out of print) The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. After this, however, the pieces themselves and the grounds for their inclusion become more shaky. The second section includes stories that have been previously published but that haven't appeared in collections—including two segments (from 1934 and 1936) that later found their way into To Have and Have Not (1937) and the "story-within-a-story" that appeared in the recent The garden of Eden. Part three—frequently of more interest for Flemingway-voyeurs than for its self-evident merits—consists of previously unpublished work, including a lengthy outtake ("The Strange Country") from Islands in the Stream (1970), and two poor-to-middling Michigan stories (actually pieces, again, from an unfinished novel). Moments of interest, but luckiest are those who still have their copies of The First Forty-Nine.

Pub Date: Dec. 2, 1987

ISBN: 0684843323

Page Count: 666

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1987

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