The Abuzeids are one of the most prominent families in 1950s Sudan. The patriarch, Mahmoud Bey, amassed the family fortune through shrewd business deals and is a supporter of both a modern Sudan and of the British rule that has helped Sudan modernize. Mahmoud’s eldest son, Nassir, should inherit the family business, but the younger son, Nur, is the more likely candidate. Nassir is dissolute and lazy, while Nur is bright and handsome. Nur’s life is irrevocably changed when he is paralyzed in a swimming accident, and the impact of Nur’s injury on the sprawling Abuzeid family is the focus of the novel.
While the entire family is affected in some way, individual differences are striking. Soraya, Nur’s cousin and intended bride, loves Nur deeply and wishes to stand by him, even if he will never be the vibrant, athletic man she was expecting to marry. Nur’s mother, Waheeba, sees caring for her son as a way back into her estranged husband’s heart, and Nur’s second wife, Nabilah, sees an “in” for her own children as well as a potential ticket back to her Egyptian homeland. Stripped of his ability to care for himself, Nur finds that he is drawn to the intellectual world, and begins writing poetry – an act that becomes his reason to live.
This isn’t a setting often seen in English-language fiction, but the rich plot and colorful characters allow the necessary historical information to pass as part of the narrative. In light of current events in the Middle East, it’s also a timely novel and may help some Westerners understand the historical context behind the contemporary struggles. The point of view alternates between chapters, and each of the many characters has a distinctive voice, which makes for an engrossing tale. Aboulela has captured the essence of what it means to be a family: the shared joys and suffering, the daily monotony and the grand events that change our lives. This is a fine novel, poetic and passionate, and it should be read and savored.