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Review: By the Sea by Abdulrazak Gurnah

Title: By the Sea

Author: Abdulrazak Gurnah

Year Published: 2002

Category: Adult fiction
Pages: 256
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Location (my 2021 Google Reading map): UK, Tanzania (Zanzibar), Germany, and Kenya

Summary (from Amazon): On a late November afternoon Saleh Omar arrives at Gatwick Airport from Zanzibar, a far away island in the Indian Ocean. With him he has a small bag in which there lies his most precious possession--a mahogany box containing incense He used to own a furniture shop, have a house and be a husband and father, but now he is an asylum seeker from paradise; silence his only protection.

Meanwhile, Latif Mahmud, someone intimately connected with Saleh's past, lives quietly alone in his London flat. When Saleh and Latif meet in an English seaside town, a story is unravelled. It is a story of love and betrayal, of seduction and of possession, and of a people desperately trying to find stability amidst the maelstrom of their times.

Review: I read this book for a couple reasons: Gurnah just won the Nobel Prize for Literature this past week and this is my daughter's favorite book (I wrote about both of these things here). I've only read one of Gurnah's other books, The Gravel Heart, which I liked. As an aside, I looked the book up on Amazon and the cost for the paperback? Over $900. What? How is that possible?!

I certainly did not pay that much. Actually, I paid $15, but that was before he earned the Nobel. This novel is beautifully written and weaves its way through two parallel lives as it tells the story of two extended families, their interactions, their experiences of living through and after a revolution (the 1964 revolution in Zanzibar), and life post colonialism. This novel is a great example of how Arab families are intertwined, connected, influenced, and involved with each other.

Gurnah meanders through his story, taking his time to reveal his characters and their life experiences. The story certainly isn't linear, which was difficult for me at first, but as I relaxed into it, I came to appreciate the slower pace, the circuitous route, and all that it reveals.

I also appreciate that Saleh and Latif's stories reveal as much about life as a refugee as they do about life back home and what both mean to people. How do we fit our original home into our new home and how do come to understand ourselves in this new place? And the stuff near hte end about Omanis really touched me as that is the story of my ex's family: Omanis in Zanzibar. 

I can see why this is my daughter's favorite book: it reads like she writes; it examines the ideas she is interested in; and it speaks of a homeland that she has yet to visit.

Challenges for which this counts: 
  • Diversity--Black and Arab author and characters
  • Historical fiction
  • Literary Escapes

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