Aya Dane is a visual artist who has less than 40 days to create a masterwork that could solidify her legacy as a contemporary virtuoso.
The patron who has presented this strange challenge is only one of the many mysteries in Moroccan writer Alaoui’s (Dreams of Maryam Tair, 2015) second novel. As Aya labors to develop her painting, buried memories of her childhood in Tangiers surface, both confusing and clarifying her understanding of her own identity. Though she has already achieved considerable success in the art world and lives in bustling Cambridge, Massachusetts, Aya is a recluse. Her only connections to the world are a single confidante and a few text messages she receives from a mystery sender, so it's up to her to piece together the puzzle of her past. This is an engaging and at times suspenseful story about the creative process, trauma, and migration, aided by Alaoui’s skillful pacing and vivid descriptions. While the characters populating Aya’s life can verge on caricature, Aya herself, as an immigrant, a woman, and an artist, embodies the ways in which identity and memory mold one another. She is a complex combination of drive and uncertainty, and it can be riveting to watch her work as Alaoui describes the way she deliberates on color and texture, perception and purpose. “Hers was the expression of a broken machinery, a fragmented body split between two shores, two realities, two ways of being that, in the end, crumbled into tiny pieces that shattered all sense of identity,” Alaoui says of her protagonist.
The lyrical prose pays off more than the psychological twists and turns, but the combination leaves a lasting impression.