Young men and women on swings on a Jeddah beach in 2002. Alijohani's novel is about difficult relationships in Saudi Arabia. Reza / Getty Images
Young men and women on swings on a Jeddah beach in 2002. Alijohani's novel is about difficult relationships in Saudi Arabia. Reza / Getty Images

Laila Alijohani’s debut novel in English is about difficult relationships in Saudi Arabia

Laila Aljohani has won awards for her fiction in her native Saudi Arabia but has so far had a limited readership outside its borders as none of her books has been translated into English. Now, with the publication of Days of Ignorance [], we are given a taste of what we have missed.

The novel, originally published in 2007, is both tender and hard-hitting and consequently leaves the reader affected by the fates of some characters and repelled by the actions of others. This and other artfully orchestrated ambivalences and moral conundrums power the book and highlight Aljohani’s skill at manipulating emotional responses.

Her first chapter – indeed first page – corroborates the unwritten writer’s rule that to snare the reader you start with a dead body. Her corpse isn’t quite dead but it is bloodied and broken enough to elicit this opening line from the remorse-riven perpetrator: “Is he dead?” In case our attention hasn’t been fully grabbed, Aljohani’s second chapter, this time from the perspective of the victim, begins equally enticingly: “He wished he would die.”

From here, the narrative gathers momentum by taking us into Medina and back to what prompted the attack. We meet Hashem, a bored young man with no job or education and few prospects. Fast cars provide permanent thrills; women are temporary pleasures, either bought or wooed then mercilessly dumped. His older sister, Leen, scorns his lifestyle. Unlike Hashem she is going somewhere after studying at King Abdulaziz University and finding work at the Social Welfare Home. Hashem’s envy towards her warps into hatred when she falls for Malek, a black man. Unable to bear the shame that Leen is heaping upon the family, Hashem assaults Malek and leaves him for dead.

Days of Ignorance benefits from its rotated points of view. We get respite from Hashem's shallow life and hate-filled outbursts (Malek is a stinking "animal" that he longs to torture) and switch gratefully to Leen who, while watching over her comatose lover in hospital, reviews the highs and lows of their relationship. Her mother was appalled at her choice of suitor. Her father, though more forgiving, vetoed their marriage – "because people here did judge others by their colour, their tribe, their race".

Aljohani flits to the perspective of a pre-hospitalised Malek and edges us towards her conclusion. The forecast for her characters is still bleak and her web of questions and issues relating to loyalty, love and retribution remains irredeemably sticky, but catharsis comes in the form of Leen’s clarity of thought and implacable defiance.

This is a novel whose polarities – black and white, good and evil – too simplistically or crudely rendered could have wrecked Aljohani’s grand design. Fortunately, she applies just the right pressure and her characters emerge intact, not as flattened cardboard caricatures. Best of all is Leen who is all too aware that her relationship with Malek “would expose the imperfection of life beneath her country’s sky. It would tear the lustrous, silken fabric in which this putrid life had enrobed itself. And no one would forgive her.”

“Lustrous” and “putrid” jar in the same sentence but stranger collocations abound elsewhere. Does a gulp of coffee after a drag on a cigarette really have a “raunchy taste”? And “the minute the pillar snapped, the sky would fall on her head” makes us wonder whether pillars do actually snap. It is difficult to ascertain who is at fault here: Aljohani or her otherwise redoubtable translator, Nancy Roberts. If this kind of fault-picking smacks of pedantry then there is surely no denying that lines such as “Death had no need to arrange its appointments” or “He would be far, far away, like a star on whose points the tattered remains of her dreams now hung” read like the overwrought flourishes of a love ­struck teenaged poet.

And yet Aljohani is capable of some supremely heartfelt language. Even better, there are several stunning passages jostling with vibrant images and cleverly crafted ideas. Leen studies Malek in his hospital bed and his face in repose puts her in mind of the dead ones she saw in university anatomy books, their skin cut away, their layers stripped to the bone. What should repulse in fact attracts: beauty, for dissection-­loving Leen, is more than skin deep and is quirkily conveyed.

Days of Ignorance is marred by erratic descriptions and there is too much pondering and not nearly enough doing. However, Aljohani's characters save the day, along with her unflinching portrayal of racial prejudice and a social commentary that veers from acute to scathing. Leen's country is one where "life was being destroyed by corrosion after spinning endlessly round and round in a stinking mire". Aljohani offers no easy solutions but we can be satisfied with her stream of consistently arresting views.

Malcolm Forbes is a regular contributor to The Review.


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