23 February 2018

Books | Review: “Lyrics Alley”

(Image: Daniel Pudles)

Set in 1950’s Sudan, Lyrics Alley is the story of the powerful, sprawling Abuzeid dynasty. With Mahmoud Beh at its helm, the family can do no wrong. But when Mahmoud’s son Nur – the brilliant heir to his business empire – suffers a near-fatal accident, his hopes for a glittering future are dashed. 

Lyrics Alley is the third novel by Leila Aboulela after Minaret and the Translator. Even though her previous work attracted considerable attention, this book seems to have slipped under the radar. This is understandable, because while the author displayed increasing maturity in dealing with her characters compared with the one-dimensionality of characters in the Translator, the story line remains fragmented and with too many focal points.

Loosely based on the author’s own family history, the book seeks to chronicle the fortunes and misfortunes of the Abuzeid family from the steady rise of their business empire to the sudden and tragic illness of the family’s bright son Nur. Against the backdrop of a tender love story Nur shared with his cousin Soraya, his illness seems all the more excessive and iniquitous. Yet, one would be forgiven for not realizing that this is indeed the main, or at least the most coherent, story in the book.

The Author’s Note and Acknowledgement at the end of the book certainly points to the above conclusion. Nonetheless, Aboulela spent a considerable amount of effort telling the story of Omdurman in the 1950s through Egyptian eyes, while simultaneously, and almost naturally, comparing it to a more sophisticated Cairo. I think it was this attempt to provide an Egyptian account of what Sudan was at the time that led the author to indulge with what appears to be superfluous characters in the story like the Egyptian teacher Badr and his family. By comparison, and while the character of Nur’s Egyptian step-mother – his father’s second wife – was sufficiently interesting and equally necessary for some of the discourse, Aboulela failed to bring her story to a convincing conclusion. In addition, one was left with the impression that the only Sudanese part of the story was the Abuzeid Saraya (Saraya itself not being a particularly Sudanese word) and the exchanges between the Abuzeid family members. All other Sudanese themes, including an impending independence, post-independence politics and the status of women in higher education were allowed to slide with the most superficial of mentions.

One of the most interesting characters in the story is that of Soraya. Aboulela uses her effectively in conveying Nur’s promise to begin with and then the extent of his illness later on in the story. Aboulela’s Soraya is complex and honest; in no way perfect, yet a genuine idea of a young Sudanese woman on the verge of modernity. Still, Aboulela treats her as an appendage of Nur’s, the moment he is forced to let her go forever is the exact moment we lose insight into her life.

There were indeed multiple flashes of genius in the novel, which lead me to insist that Aboulela’s best work is yet to come. One such passage is: “Yet now, walking in the twilight, Badr gained insight into the man’s psyche and saw, all too clearly, that it was not only the oppression of Turkish and Egyptian rule that prompted the Mahdist revolution, it was something in the very air and texture of Sudan itself. A place where reality was slippery and fantasy could take over the mind, a place of wayward spirituality, a place where the impossible and the romantic pulsed within reach. A place where tangible, inhuman forces still prevailed, not yet tamed and restrained by the rules of religion and men.”


Lyrics Alley
Leila Aboulela
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Orion Publishing Group (2010)

2 Comments on this post.

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  • Farida
    23 June 2012 at 11:44 pm - Reply

    I read Lyric Alley some time ago and it obsessed me for weeks so much so , that I went looking for the picture of the uncle on the web….and then videos of the songs his poems had become….I was delighted to find them….
    I have read other books by Leila and it is my feeling that it is not the writer’s style to write about raw politics …if more was mentioned about politics , it might have distracted from the people’s story which is what I found fascinating. Maybe there are other political writers who would be in a better position to make strong political statements….maybe we all have a diffrent story to tell….
    Also I wonder …..It does say that the writer herself has Egyptian heritage in the family so maybe writing from that point of view would come naturally …saying so..I think the character of the first Sudanese wife was very well observed …I was quite convinced I had met her …quite beliveable
    I was struck by the fact that all the female characters seemed angry one way or another …but I think that the beauty of stories lies in the fact that they “explained” why people end up how they are ….and i think the book did that…in Leila’s usual gentle empathic style
    I loved it ….it affected me

    • Nada
      26 June 2012 at 3:41 pm - Reply

      Dear Farida,

      I am sure that your sentiments are genuine. What I love the most about Leila’s work is her diligent research. It came across clearly in the Translator and she did it again in Lyrics Alley. So, there are a lot of good things about the book that I did not get the chance to talk about because I was limited by the word count.

      My sister loves Leila’s books immensely and she thinks I get a little fascist about them. I think she is right. The simple truth is that each of us seeks different things in books as we do in life. For me, I have to agree with Sartre’s criteria for a work of art that makes “people ashamed of their existence”. But that’s just me.

      I think I was also intrigued and wanted to go check out the uncle and his songs. I was also impressed by how she painted the Sudanese wife and the honesty with which she did it as well.

      I don’t think the book needed to be about or around politics, but it would have given it the flavour of the place and time which, I think, was missing from it. It felt un-Sudanese if that makes any sense. It felt so to me anyway. By the way Nausea by Sartre (yes I am obsessed!) is not particularly political but very political at the very same time.

      Thanks for engaging and your opinion.

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