The award-winning author of Lyrics Alley (2011) and The Translator (2006) explores the role of old conflicts in the rise of modern extremism—and in the struggle against it.
A professor of history, Natasha Wilson is researching the life of Imam Shamil, a 19th-century chieftain who led Muslim tribes against the Russians. Her favorite student, Oz, is one of the imam’s descendants. Natasha has a Russian mother and a Sudanese father; her original last name was Hussein. Oz’s given name is Osama. That these characters have names that are unsayable in Great Britain in 2010—where their narrative is set—is a deft symbol for the kinds of negotiations they must make in a post–9/11 world and something that brings the two together. But Natasha and Oz are as different as they are similar, and one of Aboulela’s great achievements here is her deft elucidation of the diversity within what so many of us think of simply as “Islam.” Using the contemporary narrative as a framing device, Aboulela weaves in stories from Czarist St. Petersburg and the battlefields of the Caucasus. Her thoughtful, empathetic portraits of a Georgian princess abducted by Shamil and of Shamil’s son, hostage at the imperial court of Nicholas I, show that the existential crises faced by two people of Muslim heritage in contemporary Aberdeen are not entirely new. Indeed, Aboulela makes it clear not only that the current conflict between East and West has old roots, but also that “East” and “West” are little more than convenient fictions. None of this is to say that this novel is a purely didactic exercise. Aboulela is a great storyteller, and she writers with clarity and elegance.
A pleasurable and engaging read for fans of both contemporary and historical fiction.