“Desertion” by Abdulrazak Gurnah (Tanzania)

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s seventh novel “Desertion” transports the reader to East Africa with an exciting and captivating story that portrays a continent in upheaval through the lives of its characters.

The first part is set in a small coastal town near Mombasa in 1899. Early one morning, Hassanali, a local shopkeeper, sets out for the mosque, but he never gets there, for out of the desert stumbles an Englishman who collapses at his feet. The Englishman is Martin Pearce, a writer, traveller and something of an Orientalist, who has been robbed and abandoned by his guides. He is taken away from Hassanali’s care to recuperate at the house of a colonial official, Frederick Turner. When Pearce returns to thank Hassanali for his help, he meets his sister Rehana and is immediately fascinated by her. A passionate love affair begins that brings two cultures together and that will reverberate through three generations and across continents.

In this first part, the narrative is led successively by Hassanali, Frederick, Rehana and Pearce allowing the reader to inhabit each character and experience the story from each one’s perspective. Then there is “An Interruption” narrated in the first person by someone we will soon learn to be Rashid. He gives us an account of how the affair between Rehana and Pearce might have happened. We are now in the 1950s, in Zanzibar, a country struggling with its complicated legacy of slavery and foreign rule.

The second part introduces us to a new set of characters: Rashid, who is preparing to go off to study in England; his brother Amin, who is training to be a schoolteacher like his parents; and their sister Farida, who is a dressmaker for young women, one of whom is Jamila. Amin and Jamila embark on another forbidden love affair as Zanzibar moves inexorably towards independence – and revolution.

In the third and final part of the book, we hear, through the voices of Rashid and Amin, about the unexpected consequences following the discovery of this illicit affair and how it links up to the first part of the story. Gurnah ends the novel with “A Continuation” which beautifully completes the circle adding some finishing touches to the picture, as well as opening a window onto new possibilities. 

Nicola’s Summer Reading list 2005

“Band of Angels” by Witi Ihimaera (New Zealand)
“Desertion” by Abdulrazak Gurnah (Tanzania)
“The Sari Shop” by Rupa Bajwa (India)
“Midnight Cab” by James W. Nichol (US)
“The Sunlit Stage” by Simonetta Wenkert (Italy)

* Best Summer Read

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