The Country of Others

Written by Leïla Slimani Sam Taylor (trans.)
Review by Jasmina Svenne

When Mathilde follows her Moroccan husband Amine from Alsace to his homeland, she is in for a huge culture shock. The soldier she fell in love with when he was stationed in her village during World War II is a virtual stranger to her; the climate, gender expectations and customs of the country are alien to her; and even the sky seems to be a different shade of intense blue. As the years pass, she both resists and tries to assimilate to her new environment, neither part of the local community nor that of the French colonialists. And all the while unrest is building as Moroccans are increasingly determined to gain their independence from France.

Slimani is clearly a highly regarded author – recipient of the Prix Goncourt no less – but it took me a while to become absorbed in this book. Although the author observes and analyses her characters closely and demonstrates how everyone is motivated by conflicting desires, her omniscient narrative style, flitting from one character to another, paradoxically made it harder for me to feel close to any of them – until my first proper encounter with Amine and Mathilde’s 6-year-old daughter Aïcha. Once I’d connected with the little mixed-race girl navigating her way through the frightening and inexplicable world of adults, I felt more invested in the story of her parents too.

Rural and urban Morocco are both vividly conjured up, as is the increasingly tense political situation, in which the author resolutely refuses to take sides. I could have done with a glossary of the occasional Arabic words used, but that’s just a minor quibble. This is only the first part of a projected trilogy, and it is clear from the ending that events are only going to grow more dramatic in the next volumes.