First published in the UK by Bloomsbury in May 2017.
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How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Moving from revolutionary Zanzibar in the 1960s to restless London in the 1990s, Gravel Heart is a powerful story of exile, migration and betrayal, from the Booker Prize-shortlisted author of Paradise.
Salim has always believed that his father does not want him. Living with his parents and his adored Uncle Amir in a house full of secrets, he is a bookish child, a dreamer haunted by night terrors.
It is the 1970s and Zanzibar is changing. Tourists arrive, the island's white sands obscuring the memory of recent conflict: longed-for independence from British colonialism swiftly followed by bloody revolution. When his father moves out, retreating into dishevelled introspection, Salim is confused and ashamed. His mother explains neither this nor her absences with a strange man; silence is layered on silence.
When glamorous Uncle Amir, now a senior diplomat, offers Salim an escape, the lonely teenager travels to London for college. But nothing has prepared him for the biting cold and seething crowds of this hostile city. Struggling to find a foothold, and to understand the darkness at the heart of his family, Salim must face devastating truths about himself and those closest to him – and about love, sex and power.
Evoking the immigrant experience with unsentimental precision and profound insight, Gravel Heart is a powerfully affecting story of isolation, identity, belonging and betrayal, and is Abdulrazak Gurnah's most dazzling achievement.
Gravel Heart is a first-person narrated novel exploring themes of isolation, exile and family loyalties from the point of view of Salim, a child at the beginning of our story. The book is written in a dignified and reserved style which initially made it difficult for me to get into the story. Emotions are strong, but stifled under conventions of honorable behaviour and privacy so, alongside Salim, we experience several decades of uncertainty and exiled alienation. There are flashes of open insight when we get to read excerpts from unsent letters and I particularly liked this contrast.
The most interesting aspect of the novel for me was that, while Gurnah tells his story through the actions and opinions of men, its linchpin is actually a choice made by a woman. Saida is unable to tell her own story to her son (Salim) so consequently we are only able to imagine her thoughts and motivation as we continually circle around, spiralling towards truth. This makes her a fascinating character to encounter, especially as we see her in an ever changing light as Salim matures and relates in a different way to his childhood.
Salim's immediate life in 1960s Zanzibar is beautifully evoked to give a vivid picture of everyday life on the island as it was then. References to the revolution are muted though, the horror kept hidden just out of sight, understood but unspoken. This approach throughout the story was frustrating at times as I wanted to know more, but I think ultimately it allowed me a greater connection with Salim, Saida and Masud. These are not people who wear their hearts on their sleeves. Instead they practice restraint and modesty to the extent that they eventually lose the ability to truly communicate between themselves and it is not until this barrier is eventually broken that Salim - and his readers - gain the relief of a story completely told.
Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Abdulrazak Gurnah / Contemporary fiction / Books from Tanzania