Long listed for the Orange Prize 2011 and the IMPAC Dublin Award 2012, Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela is a chronicle of a clash of perspectives; of a family and a people who are at the threshold of change within and outside. Set in the 1950s’ Sudan, Lyrics Alley presents a very accomplished portrait of a country contemplating independence, which she has won after four bloodied decades. The fact only makes the premise – that history is created at such a slow and painful pace – more appealing. Yet, Aboulela has steered clear of references to a violent present or the Darfur issue in the course of her narration.
A shift of power, in the political context and a family one, changes equations for several people, and Aboulela sketches a very visual picture of this transformation, through a number of characters of the powerful and affluent Abuzied clan. Mahmood, the patriarch, is someone who straddles two worlds. He is honoured with the “Bey” address by the Egyptian King, and his empire, which was once a shop in a Sudan street, is now spread wide.
Mahmood Abuzied is at once traditional and modern. This is demonstrated by the fact that he has married two women. One is Sudanese, illiterate, conservative and matronly; and the other is Egyptian, light-skinned, pretty, and his consort for his official face that deals with the British. And the pecking order is the source of many a conflict in the story. There is an Abuzied brother with complete Sudanese traits on one side, and sons and a niece who gravitate towards modernity or Egyptian life on the other. There is a romantic pair: a younger son, Nur, who is Mahmood’s hope, and a niece, Sorayya; both see the written word as an escape from tradition. There is a tussle between “backward” Sudan and “forward- looking” Egypt in the customs, the approach to education and the way of life; almost everything that we come across as a building block of the narration shows these faces of conflict, rendered in a beautiful, visual style.
In fact the book reads for the most part as an effective screenplay, and the incidents and emotions are chained in a rhythmic odyssey to a conclusion. The promises and ambitions that soar in the opening sequence do not reach a natural climax; the story changes course with a nasty accident that strikes one of the most endearing characters. With this incident, everything changes. The betrothal of a fond pair breaks, a marriage is on the rocks, one career is shattered but at least two new ones are born. And in the midst of all these events, which occur in a wealthy household of Sudan, a parallel story of a character, a hanger-on, gives the reader a glimpse into the lives of another class of people in Sudan, the working class.
Aboulela has woven interesting cameos and episodes to sketch the woman of Sudan in brilliant strokes. The stance that spectacles are meant for menfolk, women are educated till marriage, the social status of artists and writers, and the more serious issue of female genital mutilation all steer the story forward. The metaphor of the spectacles that Sorayya uses to see the stars more clearly is brilliant.
The portrait of the popular poet that Nur blooms into is a close sketch of a real family member, who was a highly regarded poet in the country. Strangely enough, Anti-British sentiment is non-existent in the book. The only Europeans who pass through the lives of the Abuzieds are helpful, good, and not very power-hungry nor complicated people. They aid the family with loans as bankers, save the life of the son of the family and generally pass through the book without much incident. Conflict is non-existent even in the jail; someone is pushed into jail without committing a crime and gets out with little to complain about. No unsavoury characters are described in these contexts. It’s another dimension of Sudan that slips undocumented.
Does being modern take away a man’s traditional impulses? When his Egyptian wife walks out on Mahmood in a huff to Egypt, the Sudanese is almost too tolerant of her and continues to pay her generous allowances. The same man withdraws his son from a London hospital without letting him learn to be independent; the excuse is that the son needs to be with his family. The clash of modernity and tradition in Mahmood’s mind happens over a thin grey line.
Leila Aboulela reads from Lyrics Alley.
The novel is written at a pace that doesn’t falter for a second. The narration is lyrical and appealing. The women characters have been sketched skilfully and are appealing. The Arab spring and the dawn of Sudan as a country may be a coincidence, but this unintentional bend of history certainly lends Lyrics Alley a rare appeal that few books get in the year they are published. A beautiful and absorbing read, certainly.
320 pages; £18.99