The Dove's Necklace by Raja Alem, Katharine Halls (translator) and Adam Talib (translator)
|The Dove's Necklace by Raja Alem, Katharine Halls (translator) and Adam Talib (translator)|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: Forget the murder mystery, that's just an excuse to meditate on all things currently and historically assailing the Arab world. Very learned, quite topical, but heavy going.|
|Buy? No||Borrow? Maybe|
|Pages: 480||Date: May 2017|
|Publisher: Duckworth Overlook|
I always hated Lit-Crit at school, so it came as something as a surprise that I ended up reviewing books, for fun. Now I understand. Finally, I see why literary critics get so up-in-arms about lowly book reviewers. There is a difference. This book explains it all. The author is the first woman to win the International Prize for Arabic fiction for this book. The book also the LiBerator prize for the best book translated into German in 2014. I suspect it's not done yet. The Times tells us that it exemplifies everything that is currently shaking the foundations of Arab society. I am sure that not only will more plaudits fall upon the author and the book, but also that it will become a classic, spoken of in the same breath as the international classics: Proust, Márquez, Joyce, Rushdie, Nabokov…
All of which is to say: it is very clever, very learned, insightful, topical. It is (probably) well-constructed, in the sense of maintaining the architecture that the author intended.
In parts it is exceptionally well-written, in the sense that the descriptions are beautiful and conjure up a moment in time that you feel is beyond the words describing it. There were such moments.
Unfortunately, for this reader, there weren't enough of them. I'm not a literary critic, I'm a book reviewer, and I have to emphasise the source word 'view'. This is personal. And personally, I really did not like this book. I found it hard going. Not so much un-put-down-able, as do-I-really-must-pick-it-up-again? Well, yes, I did, because I'd undertaken to review it and I would never submit an opinion without having read the whole of it.
In recommending it in their Best Books For Summer season the Guardian describes it as a surreal and meditative take on a murder mystery. To be fair, I can't argue with that assessment. It is surreal and if magical realism is your thing (back to Márquez) then you might well love it. We start with a body in an alleyway in Mecca. A woman has been murdered, her face mutilated beyond recognition. No-one seems to know who she is, much less why she has been slaughtered.
I could just about live with the idea of the story being told by the street – the Lane of Many Heads – but the story meandered through so many blind alleys that I am not ashamed to say I completely lost the plot. Having persevered to the end, I'm still not entirely sure whose body it was. I think I know, but I'm not sure.
I'm certainly confused as to what happened to the policeman charged with the investigation.
And as for the other characters, they were all mere names. None were strong enough as individuals to form themselves as personalities that I could relate to. I gave up trying to keep track as to who was who and what their motivation was.
If even following this main plot line was beyond me, I had no hope with everything else that was thrown into the mix. I can see how some will argue that this is the very strength and essence of the book…the richness of history, the context for everything that is now at the heart of the modern Arab world. I don't know enough to argue that point. By the very same tenet, I don't know enough to be even begin to follow the fables and histories that aren't so much scattered through the book, but so heavily woven into it to completely weigh it down. It is a book that wears the author's research very heavily indeed. It feels to my western sensibility that everything has been thrown into these 500 tightly packed pages of small type and smaller margins, just in case there'll be no other opportunity to tell another tale.
And that's the pity of it. There are several rich threads in here that deserve their own telling. I'd have liked the murder mystery to be just that – without all of the mysticism. I'd have liked each of the historical tales told in their own time as pure narratives (that could still speak to the modern era). I'd have liked something less – and therefore – more.
A few turned-down corners in my copy speak to snippets of wisdom that I'll likely quote, but few enough even of those. As a work of literature I have no doubt as to its significant merits. As a lowly book reviewer, I can only say: don't take this one to the beach unless sleep is your aim or – conversely – you're prepared to work quite hard at understanding the heart of it.
I can't recommend it – it tries to be all things to all men (and women) and fails as a result.
For a slightly easier road into Arabian tales I can recommend In Arabian Nights by Tahir Shah and as a westerner trying to find one's way into another culture I also enjoyed Stranger to History: A Son's Journey Through Islamic Lands by Aatish Taseer
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