I wear many hats. Employee (two places), wife, dog owner, and one of the most important ones, student. About three and a half years ago, I decided to go back to school and get my degree. It’s been a struggle trying to manage my time and not get burned out. It’s also been an incredible experience, knowing what I want to do and going after it like this. I’ve never understood the push to go to university right out of high school, but that’s a different matter. In order to finish my course, I needed a cross-cultural class, which lead my to taking an African Literature class this semester. I can’t say it was the best class I’ve ever taken, but it was one of the more interesting (which had a lot to do with the professor.) We read 7 books in 7 weeks, which was a lot, and I figure (with some prodding from Pajiba commenters) to review a few of them.
I didn’t like most of the books we read. I found them hard to connect to, the writing off putting. Palace Walk is the biggest exception to the rule. I loved this novel, the first in a trilogy, and the story it told. It focuses on the al-Jawad family of Egypt at the tail end of the First World War. The patriarch is a man who keeps his family firmly inline with their Muslim teachings, but he himself goes out every night to drink, smoke, and meet his mistress of the moment. His wife is a quiet woman who holds her family together with compassion and strength. They have three sons and two daughters, and the story unfolds over the course of several years.
The writing is beautiful. Mahfouz is a gifted writer, spinning beautiful pictures of Egypt and of this family. Each character feels rich and developed, each an important part of the story. There is a purpose for everyone and you get to see the story from almost every major characters viewpoint at one time or another. What I enjoyed most about the novel was the dual nature of everyone and everything.
The story is set in two different worlds; that which is within the walls of the family hope, and the one outside of it. The women are confined to the home, the only way they see the world is from the screened in balcony, getting glimpses through the slats and decorative scrolls carved into the walls. The daughters are waiting to be married off, it’s their fathers rule that the eldest be married first. The sons, and their father, have lives outside the home. The eldest is just like his old man, working piously during the day and carousing at night. He has to hide that from his father, however, knowing that there would be disapproval (to say the least.)
My favorite story was that of the middle son. Perhaps it’s because I’m a middle child myself, but I found him most compelling. He’s quiet for a large part of the book, a student who’s almost done school. He’s struggling against what his father wants and what he sees as the right thing. As the 1919 Revolution begins, he’s torn about wanting to do what’s right for his country versus what’s right for his family. The decisions he makes to stand up to both his father and for his country are moving to read.
This isn’t a novel you can read over a day, or over a weekend. It needs to be read slowly, to absorb the questions it’s characters face. It’s novel you want to revel in, to really explore over time. I haven’t gotten a chance to read the other two novels in the trilogy yet, a continuation of the family’s story over the following years, but I plan on it. Maybe you’ll see them as a 2015 Cannonball Reads review.