'Loneliness is Europe's malaria,' Rae said. 'No one can really be immune. This is not so hygienic a place, don't be taken in by the idols it makes of itself. You might even feel sorry for it, just a little, not too much, for there is no injustice in this decay.'
I tried to approach this book with an open mind. Considering that the introduction in the beginning of the novel included major spoilers, revealing all but the ending of the novel, I was hoping to get a good reading experience from something besides the plot - perhaps the characters or the language. I did not.
It has to be said that I have never read anything quite like this before. Islam as a religion and way of life as well as the Sudanese culture is thoroughly and quite naturally immersed into the story through the main character, Sammar, a young Sudanese woman living in Scotland. In her job as a translator as well as in her everyday life, she tries to balance somewhere in between cultures and languages, the East and the West. An immigrant widow living alone with a son growing up with her mother-in-law back in Sudan, Sammar's only comforts are religion and her daily work. At the university she works in, she meets and becomes friends with Rae, a Scottish lecturer, orientalist and researcher of Islam. A strange affair ensues.
The story is told entirely from the perspective of Sammar, so much so that Rae's thoughts and motivations remain impossibly obscure. The men's world seems very far away from Sammar and her secretary friend and fellow immigrant Yasmin. They gossip together and share their frustration at the bleak, cold English weather, but they seem to truly exist only in relation to men. When it seems that Rae is taking a friendly interest in her, Sammar immediately jumps to conclusions and speculates as to whether he would consider converting to Islam in order to marry her. Although Sammar's faith is strong and she does not compromise her principles, she is otherwise frustratingly weak and submissive. Rae, on the other hand, remains too distant to be of much interest to the reader. The ending of the book ultimately transforms this implausible story into an unrealistic, soppy romance.
Leila Aboulela: The Translator. Polygon. 1999.
ComtemporaryWriters.com: Leila Aboulela
Al-Ahram Weekly: "Halal Fiction"
Wikipedia: Leila Aboulela