‘He reads and there is a reason not to die’ – Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela

Complex and ambitious, Lyrics Alley weaves together the lives of a diverse collection of characters in 1950s Sudan. Central to the story is Nur, whose story is based on that of Aboulela’s own uncle, the Sudanese poet Hasan Awad Aboulela. Like Nur, Hasan was a student at the prestigious college in Alexandria and had a promising future ahead of him when an accident left him paralysed from the neck down.

There are several other strands to the storyline, though. As a result of Nur’s accident his betrothed and beloved Soraya ends up marrying another man, along the way becoming the first daughter in her family to go to university. Nur’s father Mahmoud Bey is torn between his traditional Sudanese first wife and younger, sophisticated Egyptian second wife. A religious teacher’s family dreams of living in a flat in a tower block. The Harrisons, an enthusiastic expat couple, are disappointed to find that British presence in the country is not always appreciated.

Lyrics Alley is Aboulela’s third novel. She’s a former winner of the Caine prize for African fiction (as is Brian Chikwava, whose book Harare North we reviewed). Content-wise it’s very assured, and the characters are quite believable. The author is on a mission to present ordinary Muslims without any of the more sensational attributes with which they often get portrayed:

I write fiction that reflects Islamic logic; fictional worlds where cause and effect are governed by Muslim rationale. However my characters do not necessarily behave as ‘good’ Muslims; they are not ideals or role models. They are, as I see them to be, flawed characters trying to practise their faith or make sense of God’s will, in difficult circumstances

With the help of a young family friend, Nur rediscovers his passion for words:

from across the room Zaki collects three pillows from the other beds and arranges them on Nur’s lap in such a way that when he places the book on top of them, the words are in perfect line with Nur’s vision… Nur reads. He reads, and there is a reason not to die. This is an activity he had forgotten, a pleasure he can take up again… now that his appetite is whetted he wants more, more words, more stories, more poems… When he reads, he floats in a current of thoughts and images, he swims as if he is moving his arms and legs. This is a kind of movement, this is a momentum, a build-up, starting, strolling, wandering, exploring

Nur eventually becomes a celebrated poet, hosting literary salons from his bed. Meanwhile Sudan moves towards independence. According to the author, Lyrics Alley’s explores the parallel between Nur’s life and Sudan on the brink of independence – high hopes and potential wasted when things don’t turn out as planned.

With so much going on almost inevitably some themes remain underdeveloped. At one point the head of the household’s first wife has two little girls circumcised, although her husband has expressly forbidden it. Although the reactions of various family members are examined, the way it soon fades into the bustle of the other storylines feels inconclusive for such a controversial topic. And when Mahmoud Bey, a successful business man, goes to ask for a bank loan to expand into industry, he is told by his (British) banker that ‘the future of the country is in agriculture’. I can guess how this turned out, but I’d love to know if I’m right or not (without having to ask the Google). The cumulative effect of these (and other) undeveloped leads is vaguely unsatisfying, but given the ambition of Lyrics Alley’s scope, and important but potentially dry subject matter, perhaps the real surprise is that the book is as readable and coherent as it is.

Any Cop?: As much drama as a Turkish soap opera, but with more meaningful content.


Lucy Chatburn

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