Tuesday, June 28, 2016

book review: Chronicle of a Last Summer by Yasmine El Rashidi

The basics: Yasmine El Rashidi's debut novel is set in Cairo in three pivotal summers in modern Egyptian history: 1984, 1998, and 2014.

My thoughts: I admit, most of what I know about contemporary Egyptian politics comes from watching the documentary The Square, which is harrowing and amazing. El Rashidi has the daunting task of writing a novel about a time and place readers may or may not be familiar with. She attempts to address this problem through her narrator. We meet her in 1984 when she is a child trying to filter the different things she hears from friends and family members to make sense of them. Child narrators don't often work for me, but this one was successful. She served as a filter for the reader to learn the state of things, and this section also sets the stage to offer contrast to the coming sections (if you know anything about Egypt, that is not a spoiler.)

The second section was my favorite. I partially attribute it to the fact that the narrator, and perhaps El Rashidi herself, are about the same age. To see the summer of 1998 unfold was fascinating in three ways. In some ways, it's the most interesting piece of the puzzle of Egypt, as I knew the least about this time period. I am also drawn to narratives of college as a vehicle for deep thinking--to have that experience against that political backdrop moved me deeply. To view Egypt and our narrator in the year of 1998, which was such a pivotal year for me personally, as I graduated high school and I entered college, made me critically examine the world in 1998, including my own place in it. El Rashidi writes about this time beautifully:
"There isn't a language for what we are living. We need our own vocabulary, not just new forms of literature and art. He is teaching himself Russian because he thinks he might find answers, a language that speaks to all he feels about the politics of our times."
"She doesn't use the term Middle East because it is a creation of the British. To use it is to remain colonized. I used Middle East all the time. I nodded and made a mental note to be careful."
When the action shifts to the last summer, 2014, I was excited. I knew the most about this time, and I thought El Rashidi had set up the story beautifully. In some ways, this section disappointed. It was certainly a fitting end, but it felt less fully realized in some ways. Perhaps because we are still so close to the events, it did not offer the historical insight the other two pieces did. In a sense, the whole book is saying that: even if we understand how we got here, how did we get here? There aren't answers, of course. As I ponder why the third section felt like I let down, I think it tried to do much; it felt too convenient. Most of the novel felt like it was the story of one woman first and her country second. In the third section, I didn't feel as connected to our narrator. So many people and places get an ending, and I found myself wanting more of her present and future.

Favorite passage: "It seems that politics is at the foreground and background of everything yet not something that can be impacted in any way."

The verdict: Chronicle of a Last Summer is a beautiful glimpse into Egypt from the 1980's to the present. El Rashidi skillfully straddles the line of knowledge and emotion in a way that this book could be enjoyed by readers who know little about contemporary Egypt as well as those who know quite a bit. I'm drawn to short novels that do a lot, and Chronicle of a Last Summer is just that. El Rashidi showed immense restraint to tell such a large story in this way, and it makes me quite excited to see what she'll write next.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 192 pages
Publication date: June 28, 2016
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Chronicle of a Last Summer from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

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  1. I'm glad you liked this one. I'm about to take it on vacation with me and I'm hoping it will make a long flight go a little faster.

  2. Ok, this was a recent DNF for me because I just could not get past the child narrator (which I normally do not have a problem with). Some of it seemed authentic and then certain phrases just did not for a 6 yr old. However, I keep seeing that it gets really good once you've completed that section, so I think I'll try again. Your review has reignited my interest!

    1. I think the child narrator was more of a convenience--to help educate the reader, but I agree, it was not always authentic. Knowing she would age, I would persevere!


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