Lara El Gibaly: Hisham Matar’s The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land In Between (2017)
We’ve already reviewed Hisham Matar’s 2017 memoir — which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Autobiography — but we can’t recommend it enough. Told with incredible sensitivity, Matar’s third book (following two novels) chronicles his return to Libya after the fall of the Muammar Qadhafi’s government, searching for answers on the fate of his father. Jaballa Matar was a political dissident kidnapped from Egypt, where the family was living in exile, in 1997, and taken to Libya’s notorious Abu Salim prison. After a brief letter one year later, he was never heard from again, and the young Matar went on to live alternately in pursuit of, fleeing from, and attempting to cure himself of the ever-present absence of his father and the legacy of his troubled country.
While this may be a bit of a heavy “summer read,” Matar’s glistening prose and his exceptional ability to evoke hope, melancholy and the burden of carrying countless unanswered questions about the past make this an engaging journey through the regional politics of the past two decades as well as a stunning personal account. Read on a quiet summer evening as you feel the breeze wafting down from the not so distant Libyan coastline.
Rowan El Shimi: Chiminanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (2006)
Before a passing Canadian tourist gave me this book on the beach of Sinai’s Nuweiba in 2014, I had never heard of Nigerian author Chiminanda Ngozi Adichie, and — shameful as it is to admit — had no knowledge of Nigeria beyond its location on the map. This book changed both these facts, and, through a beautifully told story, enticed me to read more of Adichie’s books and learn about a country whose modern post-colonial history is not that far from ours.
The story is told through its characters’ intertwining lives during the Nigerian Civil War (also known as the Biafran War), as they take turns narrating. Ugwu is a 13-year-old village boy working for intellectual university professor Odenigbo and his girlfriend Olanna, who comes from a rich family from Lagos. Two other important characters are Olanna’s drily humorous twin sister and her art-loving British boyfriend.We follow the changes in their lives, perceptions and priorities from before the war in 1963, and as the war unfolds and eventually ends in 1970.
The power of Adichie’s storytelling lies in its simplicity. She creates a world that absorbs you into her characters’ lives and their plight to have their own state, Biafra. It is a history lesson wrapped in intense character details and intricate prose. You will laugh, cry and get lost in Wikipedia searches on Nigeria.
Lara El Gibaly: Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017)
This is Arundhati Roy’s first fiction in the two decades since the publication of her first novel, Booker-Prize-winning The God of Small Things, in 1997. Reading it back then, I was struck by her beautifully devastating prose, and her casual ability to defy the limits of language. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness also demonstrates Roy’s trademark eye for detail and peculiar turns of phrase, but is faster, angrier and (although I didn’t imagine this to be possible) even more melancholy.
While The God of Small Things is set in the backwaters of humid Kerala, alive with ripe mangoes, fat mosquitos and lazy rivers, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness takes place between the graveyards of Delhi and the bloodstained mountains of Kashmir. Its characters are India’s marginalized and downtrodden, those who resist definition and are rendered invisible. Revered but also despised intersex Hijras, vilified Kashmiri freedom fighters, a month-long hunger striker passing out conspiracy theories at a Delhi intersection, a security guard at one of the capital’s burgeoning gated communities. It’s no surprise that Roy dedicates this book “To the Unconsoled.” After turning over its last page, I needed to be consoled myself, both from the book’s unapologetically brutal narrative and from the realization that it was over. Perhaps this is not a “summer read.” But it is an incredible book that will claim its space in your life once you pick it up, seaside or elsewhere.
Laura Gribbon: Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence (2008)
This book is the perfect creepy companion to your thoughts as you recover from summery social engagements under an overworked air-conditioning unit, or spend restless nights by a fan. Set in 1970s Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk’s novel tells the story of upper-middle-class businessman Kemal and his less wealthy distant relative Füsun, a young shop girl whom he credits himself with having introduced to sex. Kemal’s obsession with Füsun and their subsequent affair (conducted behind his fiancée Sibel’s back) are about the unobtainable, but also about his egotistical perception of the role he plays in her life.
Pamuk makes the classist and sexist expectations that accompany societal relationships clear through his characters’ daily personal lives. The society is one in which the notion of “modern” is uncomfortably assimilated with the notion of “Western” culture. Women are judged for being both too prudish and too liberal: Sibel, seen as a respectable woman who can spot a fake handbag on sight, only slept with her fiancée after she was certain they would marry, while Kemal ensures his friends know all about his sexual conquests.
Pamuk opened a real-life Museum of Innocence in Istanbul in 2012 to accompany the novel, featuring items from Istanbul society in the 1970s and mementos from Kemal’s relationships. Many of us keep mementos of lost lovers — an item of clothing, diary or letters — but this book and exhibition take hoarding from a shameful private act to a new level of honest, public exhibitionism. In his collection of a coffee cup or a cigarette Füsun once held, Kemal immortalizes love in a way that allows him to selectively remember her and their relationship.
Heba El-Sherif: Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved (2003)
Siri Hustvedt’s 400-page third novel, her best-known, opens with a description of a large painting of a woman lying on the floor in an empty room, hung alone in a New York gallery circa 1975. The novel’s narrator, Leo Hertzberg, a 70-year-old art history professor with failing eyesight, tells us that he was once aroused by it.
Hustvedt discusses the fictional artworks of her novel in great detail (she has worked as an art critic herself), contextualizing New York’s commercial arts scene, complete with occasional spiteful incidents, across the 25 years the novel spans. We follow Leo, his academic wife Erica, Bill Wechsler (the artist who made the painting the novel opens with) and his academic wife Violet, as the quartet immerse us in a world where ideas are in constant collision and familial ties are put to test. Through stinging prose, Hustvedt mixes her observations on art, love and loss — and also hysteria, eating disorders, friendship and sexuality — with academic insights, in a warm interlock of form that leaves you knowing things you hadn’t. But it’s her characters that are truly memorable, their pain and doubt constructed with untamed, almost cringe-worthy devotion. What I Loved is a resonant psychological thriller made up of elegantly-coiffed sentences. It’s difficult to put down.
Maha ElNabawi: Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue (2013, translated in 2016)
The translator of this book, Elisabeth Jaquette, reviewed this book for Mada Masr back in 2013 when it only existed in Arabic. Deploying Orwellian themes, The Queue is set in a near-future dystopian society in an anonymous Middle Eastern city. In its imaginary yet familiar world, we follow a handful of protagonists in the aftermath of a political uprising referred to as the “Disgraceful Events.” Yehya is suffering from a bullet wound to the gut he received during that time, but due to a law passed by the centralized governing body “The Gate,” a doctor cannot remove the bullet from Yehya’s body without a permit. But in order to get the permit, he must wait in the queue that continues to grow outside The Gate.
As we learn more about the mysteries shrouding Yehya, his injury, and his attempt at survival, we encounter other characters including his girlfriend, who struggles to watch the love of her life slowly wither away. Later we meet an older woman who is attempting to save her only living daughter by any means necessary, and a journalist whose ethics compel him to work on aiding Yehya’s salvation. While the book has been compared to Orwell’s 1984, the world Abdel Aziz constructs is not so fictitiously dissimilar to contemporary Cairo, and the machinations of the state otherwise remain totally mysterious. The Gate might be the Mogamma, while the ever-growing queue is a clear metaphor for the piling corruption and injustice in a post-revolutionary Egypt. The Queue is a character-driven novel rather than relying heavily on plot development; while not totally groundbreaking in its treatment of dark dystopian themes, it is eerily calm, very relevant, and a page-turner.