The Cup (The Moorish Empire)

Written by Melissa Addey
Review by Irene Colthurst

Hela, a perceptive girl trained to be a healer in the 11th-century North African city of Kairouan, is given a red wooden cup with mysterious power. After she uses it to mix a love elixir to attract a boy she fancies, he dies, and she pledges herself to help his sister, Djalila, flee her father’s house. What then unfolds through Hela’s reminiscence in Melissa Addey’s prequel novella The Cup is a spare, lyrical rendering of the tangle of intense relationships she arranges, which are marked by her own ambivalence about the cup, Djalila’s pain, and only fleeting snatches of happiness for anyone.

Addey evokes her setting in key details of a few words. Confining her story to the households of a few of the city’s more prominent merchants, she is able to delve deep into the interior worlds of her characters without having to describe Kairouan itself in anything but the most general terms: the city in The Cup is its souks and slave market. Given this focus, Hela is not the most reliable of narrators, caught as she is in self-recrimination. It’s a vivid and illuminating perspective, but can be repetitive through the novella’s middle acts.

Overall, Addey handles her narrative pacing well, ultimately moving across two decades of Hela’s early life. As either a standalone work or a reader’s first stop before Addey’s trilogy on the medieval Maghreb, The Cup provides a rare chance to see into the hopes, flaws, and compromises of people brushed over in most Western history books.