Thursday, January 7, 2016

book review: The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela

The basics:  "It’s 2010 and Natasha, a half Russian, half Sudanese professor of history, is researching the life of Imam Shamil, the 19th century Muslim leader who led the anti-Russian resistance in the Caucasian War. When shy, single Natasha discovers that her star student, Oz, is not only descended from the warrior but also possesses Shamil’s priceless sword, the Imam’s story comes vividly to life."

My thoughts: The novel opens with the character of Natasha, and I connected immediately with her. Admittedly, I'm drawn to female academics, but she was richly drawn and mysterious: "I preferred the distant past, centuries that were over and done with, ghosts that posed no direct threat. History could be milked for this cause or that. We observed it always with hindsight, projecting onto it our modern convictions and anxieties." I wasn't particularly surprised when this novel jumps into the past, as Natasha is a professor of history, but it took me much longer to connect with the historical narrative.

At times, this novel felt like two connected novels rather than a single one. The narrative alternated between the past and present, and I mostly enjoyed the present more. There was one stunning part of the historical narrative that became my favorite part of the entire book. There was little overlap between the sections as I read, which led me to expect the two would eventually come together more than they did. In a sense, I appreciate this decision to not have a contrived coincidence meandering through, but the result was also one of disconnect. As I read, I found myself hoping the historical sections would end soon so I could get back to Natasha. The pacing of the novel made it feel longer than it is, partially because it struggled to gain and sustain momentum.

Despite these issues, there is so much worthy insight here. In some ways, I enjoyed this novel more when I wasn't reading it, which doesn't sound like a compliment, but it is. Aboulela infuses both the historical and contemporary narratives with so many ideas to ponder. I'm glad I took time to read this one slowly over several days to let its ideas seep into my mind. It's not a book to devour in a single sitting or race through for the plot, but it is one whose ideas will continue to resonate within, particularly in light of the world today.

Favorite passage: "This was one of the irksome things about being an outsider--one never knew the extent to which the rules could be bent."

The verdict: Overall, I enjoyed the contemporary story much more than the historical one. Still, The Kindness of Enemies is a powerful novel that reminds us of how much stays the same over time, as it draws parallels between the Caucasian War and a post-9/11 world.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 337 pages
Publication date: January 5, 2016
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Kindness of Enemies  from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Leila Aboulela's website and like her on Facebook.

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