River Spirit

Written by Leila Aboulela
Review by Helen Johnson

The Nuba Mountains, Sudan, in 1881, and a village woman slips from her husband’s bed, evades soldiers on guard, and runs through the night, seeking The Mahdi. So opens an ambitious book that explores Sudan’s wars of the 1880s and 1890s. It’s a complex story, told from multiple points of view. There’s a village girl, orphaned and sold into slavery. There’s an Islamic scholar, a Scottish artist, a slacker who is transformed after meeting The Mahdi. Wives, mothers, daughters, military commanders – on both sides – all tell ‘their truth’. Who are the ‘good guys’? Well, that depends on your point of view. Mahdi is a religious title for one who will appear to rid the world of evil and injustice. Was Muhammad Ahmed, the man who declared himself The Mahdi in Sudan in 1881, the ‘true’ Mahdi? Leaving aside the religious debate, ‘The Mahdi’ led a popular campaign to overthrow colonial rule. This rule was a complex triumvirate of Egypt and its masters the Ottoman Empire and later, the British Empire.

The multiple perspectives meant that I did not bond with a single character to carry me through the book. But they were successful in bringing alive a complex political situation in a country populated by multiple ethnicities, religions and genders. Through her characters’ eyes, Aboulela brings to life the people and places of 19th-century Sudan. People eat, dance, love, and hate, while the river throngs with water carriers, washer women, steamers, egrets, and hippos. I knew nothing about Sudan before reading this book. Through her painstaking research and skilled writing, Aboulela has taught me something, in a book that was easy to read, and I am glad to have read it.