Sammar is a Sudanese widow working as an Arabic translator at a Scottish university. Since the sudden death of her husband, her young son has gone to live with family in Khartoum, leaving Sammar alone in cold, gray Aberdeen, grieving and isolated. But when she begins to translate for Rae, a Scottish Islamic scholar, the two develop a deep friendship that awakens in Sammar all the longing for life she has repressed. As Rae and Sammar fall in love, she knows they will have to address his lack of faith in all that Sammar holds sacred.
This novel starts off quite slowly and for the most part it was a subdued and gloomy read. This was mostly due to Sammar’s grief and her complete absence in the present life. This only added to the story though. It made the pain that Sammar was going through very real and palpable through the writing. In the latter half of the book, the pace did lift slightly and more elements of the plot became relevant.
I really loved Aboulela’s style of writing and it was so poetic at times, especially when Sammar experienced a wave of grief. Her bereavement was a focal part of the story and it always remained so, even when Sammar became close to Rae, the Scottish academic. As their relationship grows, new complex issues arise and this was all dealt with in an authentic and careful way.
Another thing I loved about this book was the causal and frequent discussion of Islamic principles and beliefs. This was done through the dialect and the thought process of Sammar herself and therefore crucially, it was through the perspective of a Muslim. It didn’t feel forced as though the author wanted to make a point of it, it was relevant and important in the scene and the plot overall.
This story has a slow and subtle plot and mostly character driven which might be an issue for some people. This is usually preferable for me however, even in this case where the main character wasn’t necessarily particularly likeable or endearing, she was just who she was. The ending of this story wouldn’t sit right with many people and they could call it fanciful or too forced. However, I can speak from personal experience that what happened in the ending does happen and it was nice to see this narrative told.
I also loved that it was set in Scotland just because.
I read this book as part of a small selection of books with Muslim characters/written by Muslim authors which are on my to be read pile that I want to get through in Ramadan. I wanted to focus on these books in Ramadan because it felt like the best time for it! I finished this book several days ago but have only just got around to writing the review. More Muslim books to come!