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Review: Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah

Title: Gravel Heart
Author: Abdulrazak Gurnah
Year Published: 2017

Genre: Adult fiction
Pages: 268
Rating: 4 out of 5

Location (my 2020 Google Reading map)UK and Zanzibar/Tanzania

FTC Disclosure: I borrowed this book from my daughter

Summary (from the inside flap of the book): Moving from revolutionary Zanzibar in the 1960s to restless London in the 1990s, Gravel Heart is a powerful story of exile, migration and betrayal, from the Booker Prize-shortlisted author of Paradise. Salim has always believed that his father does not want him. Living with his parents and his adored Uncle Amir in a house full of secrets, he is a bookish child, a dreamer haunted by night terrors. It is the 1970s and Zanzibar is changing. Tourists arrive, the island's white sands obscuring the memory of recent conflict: longed-for independence from British colonialism swiftly followed by bloody revolution. When his father moves out, retreating into dishevelled introspection, Salim is confused and ashamed. His mother explains neither this nor her absences with a strange man; silence is layered on silence. When glamorous Uncle Amir, now a senior diplomat, offers Salim an escape, the lonely teenager travels to London for college. But nothing has prepared him for the biting cold and seething crowds of this hostile city. Struggling to find a foothold, and to understand the darkness at the heart of his family, Salim must face devastating truths about himself and those closest to him - and about love, sex and power. Evoking the immigrant experience with unsentimental precision and profound insight, Gravel Heart is a powerfully affecting story of isolation, identity, belonging and betrayal, and is Abulrazak Gurnah's most dazzling achievement.

Review: My daughter recently wrote a paper about Arabs in Zanzibar and her professor suggested that she read Abdulrazak Gurnah's books, so she bought three of them. 

I have another connection to this book, which is stronger than the one stated above. My ex-husband, with whom I am still close, was born on the island of Zanzibar and his family had to flee to Dar-es Salam in the mid-1960s during the revolution when Tanganyika and Zanzibar joined. His family had to leave again in the late 60s when the local population rose up against the Arab population. Given all this, I figured this book would be really interesting and help me to better understand an important time in his life.

I see a number of parallels between the book and Abe's life: jail time for family members, the descriptions of streets and life on Zanzibar, and the way the family interacts. But, the main character, Salim, left to go to university in the UK so his experience is vastly different from Abe's who came to southern California in junior high. Still, an interesting read.

Salim is a passive character; while he is the narrator (which I liked, it gives a more personal feeling to the book to read it in the first person), it feels as if life happens to him rather than him taking charge of his life. I wanted him to ask his parents questions more directly so he would know what exactly was going on with them, but I think his culture and the times didn't really allow for that. I also wanted Salim to be successful, and he is somewhat. He accomplishes much of what he wants, but doesn't ever seem enthused about it all. However, I did get a sense of what life is/was like for immigrants from east Africa when they went abroad for education and work.

The book begins and ends with the story of Salim's parents, which I really liked as the reader better understands Salim and his life in relation to his family. I especially enjoyed the end when Salim and his father have a good sit down and we finally hear his father's story. It's a good reminder that we don't often know why people do and say what they do until we hear their side of things.

Challenges for which this counts: 

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