Friday, February 10, 2017

Yasmine Al-Rashidi's Chronicles of a Last Summer

The most impressive thing I find in this novel is the way the author changes the voice of the narrator to reflect her age in the three sections from different times in her life:  1984, 1998, and 2014.  In the first section, she's a young girl, and the syntax reflects convincingly how a young girl would talk.  The sentences are short and simple, assertive without condition.  Here's an example:  "People stared at us.  There were policemen everywhere.  Outside, inside . . .  Mama took my hand.  She pulled me.  We walked up the big marble staircase."  She also reports what she hears without much commentary on it:  "Uncle said co-ops exist because of Nasser's mistakes."  In the 1998 section, as a young woman she has become a deeper, more expansive thinker, wrestling with some way to deal with her history and Egypt's:  "I've taken to writing letters to people who don't exist or once existed or exist only as statues or gods."  In the final section, the narrator's voice seems both nostalgic (she talks about her dead Uncle and what she would say to him) and certain:  She wants to preserve the "older memories" and not let them get erased by the events in Tahrir Square in 2011 or 2013.  The tension between permanence and change is prevalent throughout the novel.  On the one hand, the narrator lives with her mother in the house in which her mother was born.  The house contains memories of generations of her family, and is a constant and steadying space for the narrator.  Outside the doors, however, the Egypt she experiences is in an almost perpetual state of change, often violently effected:  Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, Morsi, Mansour, Sisi.  The novel ends on the verge of the permanence ad history of the house going away. 

This is a beautifully written novel, seductive and compelling.  I was eager to read more not because of the plot, but because of the experience of reading and enjoying the delicious language and smart structure of the novel.

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