Lost Property by Laura Beatty
Do we learn from history? Is there ever a balance between stability and change? Is human society a function of art, a drive for prosperity and war? How can human beings be so violent and cruel? Big questions, with no easy answers, as you might expect.
Part memoir, part novel with pictures, part travelogue and more, I enjoyed learning more about European history, although I’m not sure I kept fully abreast of all the philosophical threads. There’s a parallel between the writer packing away her belongings before leaving London and the museum artefacts, asking if our identities are comprised of the things we own and use.
Laura Beatty’s fourth book is more intellectual than entertaining, although there are touches of humour. The best part for me is the lyrical and highly original use of language (something I seem to be struggling with in composing this review). Thanks to Atlantic books for my review copy. If you’re looking for something different, intelligent and well written, this might be for you.
Bird Summons by Leila Aboulela
At forty-five, Salma seems the most successful, with four clever children, a job as a massage therapist and a loving Scottish husband, a white Muslim convert, who lets her do what she wants. But in her native Egypt she qualified as a doctor, she struggles to understand her British children and now an old flame from university has been in touch.
Moni has put her highflying banking career behind her to care for her disabled son. Devotion and exhaustion leave little room for other identities, particularly as a wife. Now her husband has secured a well-paid job in Saudi Arabia, Moni is resisting his attempts to ship the family there.
Already on her third marriage in her twenties, Iman was brought up to believe her beauty would bring her wealth and happiness, and can’t understand how that hasn’t worked out. Accustomed to being cared for, she lets Salma treat her as a pet while, buried beneath the attractive packaging, she bears the scars of the Syrian Civil War.
Finding a wardrobe full of dressing up outfits in her bedroom, Iman uses the holiday to experiment with different selves. She’s also visited by a story-telling hoopoe which, according to an author’s note, is the only species of bird mentioned in the Qur’an. There are also fantasy elements appropriate to the personalities of the two women: Salma repeatedly catches sight of a runner dressed as she remembers her boyfriend in Cairo; Moni is shadowed by a little boy, who grows progressively bigger, with the same name as her son.
I found Leila Aboulela’s fifth novel an enjoyable and undemanding read, which I gobbled up in a day, when a migraine left me in no fit state for much else. I loved how she portrays the conflict between the women and the ordinarying (as opposed to Othering) of the dilemmas faced by Muslim women in contemporary Britain. I enjoyed the magic realism elements initially, although I felt they got rather out of hand towards the end. Thanks to publishers Weidenfeld & Nicolson for my review copy.
Bird Summons reminded me of a few of the stories in my collection, Becoming Someone. There’s a woman who, like Iman, tries on different outfits which say (literally) different things about her identity. There’s a stronger magical-realism element in another story, “Telling the Parents”. Another woman finds herself constrained by the rules of her religion in “The Invention of Harmony”. Here I am reading the opening: