Friday, 3 June 2016

Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

I first encountered Sudanese author, Leila Aboulela, via the always wonderful World Book Club on the BBC World Service. I came across her again at the opening session of Bare Lit – a panel discussion entitled Can Literature Liberate? Lyrics Alley was one of a bundle of books I took away from Bare Lit.

Unlike Aboulela’s first two books, whose focal characters were Sudanese immigrants in contemporary Britain, Lyrics Alley takes place wholly in the past and (almost) wholly in Egypt and Sudan.

It is the 1950s, and Sudan is under the colonial rule of an Anglo-Egyptian condominium. Independence is on the horizon, and the young Sudanese are eager to carve out a new identity for themselves.

Mahmoud Bey, the patriarch of the family, seems to stand as a metaphor for Sudan itself. Married to two women, one Sudanese and traditional, one Egyptian and modern, he stands poised on the cusp on change, valuing the traditions of his country, while admiring and, in part, emulating the modernism represented by Egypt and Britain.

The younger generation seek new freedoms. Women fight for their right to education. The men enjoy music and poetry, occupations seen as decadent by their parents. They seem to hold the future in the palm of their hands – until a terrible accident cuts short the dreams of Mahmoud’s younger son, Nur. Can a tragedy that slams so many doors in his face open one more that he never expected?

There have been many books about the last days of the British Empire written from the point of view of white ex-patriots, retreating or clinging on. Much rarer to view that period through the eyes of those feeling their way towards freedom and self-determination. Lyrics Alley is rich with details of what life was like for a middle class Sudanese family of the time.

Aboulela paints a picture of daily life in the hoash – the communal open space in the family compound where the women and children of the household cooked, ate and often slept.

“The women move with their cooking utensils to the dim far corner of the hoash. They fry and stir and Zaki staggers back and forth carrying dinner trays. The heat is intense, even this late at night. Water is sprinkled on the ground time and time again. It dries immediately, after releasing a tepid coolness.”

This world is contrasted with the more modern, Westernised life espoused by Mahmoud’s Egyptian second wife. To begin with, it is implied that life in the hoash is backward, stuck in the past. But as the novel unfolds, the picture becomes much more nuanced.

Like many of the characters in Lyrics Alley, Aboulela is of mixed Egyptian and Sudanese heritage. Lyrics Alley was inspired by the life of her uncle, Hassan Awad Aboulela, who after a golden future was cut short by an accident, turned to writing poetry. Many of his poems were set to music by a new wave of Sudanese musicians and are still influential in Sudan today.

Aboulela uses her own translations of her uncle’s poetry, especially his first poem, Travel is the Cause, with includes line, “In you Egypt are the causes of my injury. And in Sudan my burden and solace.” This line served as the kernel of inspiration for the story. It also comes to represent Sudan’s striving for independence.

Lyrics Alley is a love story, the story of the birth of a country, and also a story about the well-spring of creativity.

You can read more about Aboulela’s inspiration for Lyrics Alley here

You’ll enjoy this if you loved: Where the River Parts by Radhika Swarup, Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Under the Eye of the Clock by Christopher Nolan

Avoid if you dislike: Stories that deal with serious disability

Perfect Accompaniment: A pot of cinnamon tea

Genre: Historical fiction, African fiction

Available from Amazon

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