What the Day Owes the Night by Yasmina Khadra

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What the Day Owes the Night by Yasmina Khadra
Buy What the Day Owes the Night from Amazon.co.uk

Buy What the Day Owes the Night from Amazon.com

Genre: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Robert James
Reviewed by Robert James
Summary: Engrossing saga of childhood friends in colonial Algeria who grow up together – can their relationship survive both the beguiling Emilie, and the Algerian Revolt?
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: May 2010
Publisher: William Heinemann Ltd
ISBN: 978-0434019939

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Nine year old Algerian Muslim Younes is devastated when his father's farm is destroyed and his family have to move to the slum of Jenane Jato. However, while the rest of his family struggle, this turns out to be something of a blessing in disguise for Younes, who is rescued by his wealthy uncle, a pharmacist. Renamed Jonas, he moves to live with his uncle and aunt in the vibrant European district of Rio Salado. There, he meets new friends Jean-Christophe, Simon, and Fabrice. But what seems to be an unbreakable friendship is tested to its limits by the return to the area of the beautiful Emilie, and the boys' problems increase as Algeria fights for its independence from France. The book is narrated by Jonas at a much older age, looking back at his life, although the epilogue brings us to the present day as he visits a grave.

I found the first part of the book, with Younes and family in Jenane Jato, rather slow to get going, although I could appreciate the quality of the writing – but something clicked into place once he moved away to his aunt and uncle, and took on the name Jonas. From then on I was absolutely hooked, by both the gorgeously lyrical writing and the realistic depiction of teenage life. In fact, even though it's aimed firmly at adults, this is one I'll be recommending to some of my more advanced year 11 pupils looking for something to read over the upcoming long summer holiday.

Yasmina Khadra (the pseudonym for Algerian army officer Mohammed Moulesshoul) has done a much better job of capturing the heartache and joy of a group of friends' teenage years than most authors aiming at that target audience do. The main five characters – the 'pitchfork', as the inseparable Jonas, Jean-Christophe, Fabrice and Simon are known, plus the stunning Emilie – are all vivid creations and really make the book stand out. Jonas is an especially interesting narrator – he's a deeply conflicted character, likeable but capable of frustrating the reader with some poor decisions.

The Algerian War of Independence itself takes up a relatively small part of the book, but even earlier on, this is always foreshadowed. There's prejudice towards Arabs all the way through – although Jonas is lucky enough to avoid most of this, with his looks allowing him to blend in with the Europeans. Still, when the war eventually breaks out and its effects reach Rio Salado, it becomes a brutal and thrilling story, a marked change in pace from the fairly languid prose of earlier in the book.

All in all this is extremely highly recommended and I look forward to getting my hands on some of Khadra's earlier books, which are now on order from my local library.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: For more literary fiction set in Africa, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie comes highly recommended. If you're willing to look much further north in search of more beautiful writing, the Danish epic We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen is one of my very favourite pieces of literary fiction in recent years.

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