The Kindness of Enemies

Written by Leila Aboulela
Review by Amy Watkin

Aboulela’s book moves between 2010 Scotland and mid-19th-century Russia and Dagostan. Imam Shamil, the Muslim leader in Dagostan, is determined to end the Caucasus War, but is betrayed when his eight-year-old son is taken from him as part of an ill-conceived peace deal. Years later, Imam Shamil’s son has been raised Russian and has nearly forgotten his family, language, and religion, but Shamil still wants his son back. His people capture Anna, Princess of what had been an independent Georgia.

In 2010 Scotland, Natasha, a history professor with a Russian mother and Sudanese father, finds herself in the home of two of Imam Shamil’s descendants, who help her unravel the history and understand the humanity behind it.

I read this book in only one day. I was immediately drawn in to the stories and the layering of the characters’ lives. The book alternates between perspectives, and I found myself looking forward to each one. All of the characters are fully drawn and equally captivating. Aboulela lets readers learn from them even as they learn from each other. Ultimately, this book is about shadows, three characters whose lives overlap and who find themselves struggling with similar questions: How should people of different religions treat one another? What is the best sort of parent/child relationship? Who are our true teachers in life? When can we allow ourselves to let go and just trust one another? What happens when you no longer see your enemy as a bad person? Aboulela writes beautifully of complicated identities and mixed races, handling great complexities with art and thoughtfulness.