This punchy, yet poised, collection of short stories by Leila Aboulela explores displacement of a variety of different types; the displacement felt by a young English-Egyptian girl on her trips back to Egypt, of not really belonging and yet mysteriously drawn to her mother-land, of a young English woman recently converted to Islam, of the Scotsman who feels hopelessly disaffected when visiting his fiancee’s family in Khartoum and of the displacement felt by so many immigrants as they leave their homes for a country whose customs and cultures seem to alien to them, whose reception of them can so often be hostile, accusing them of innumerable imaginary crimes. On the face of it the reader would conclude that Aboulela is exploring the disconnect and differences between cultures which are intrinsically different, yet the key theme of the novels is the things which bring is together and how the innate human desire for love and friendship as a way of overcoming our sense of isolation and the cultural differences which divide us, just as with Shadia and Bryan in ‘The Museum’.
The stories unfold not so much as a narrative, but as a series of images which encapsulate the emotional journeys which the characters are going through; some characters are stirred from their catharsis by jolts of love, some by the beauty of the world around them, such as the opalescence of the Nile as the narrator in ‘Something Old, Something New’, however what is important is that all of the characters are attempting to find some kind of meaning and sense of belonging. And herein lies the strength of Aboulela’s short stories and the innate sense of pathos which runs through them; where it be the supercilious Ostrich in ‘The Ostrich’ or the star-struck reader in ‘Pages of Fruit’, is it the insecurities of the characters, their flaws as well as their strengths which add emotional poignancy and depth to their characters, allowing the reader to invest emotionally in all the stories Aboulela weaves, whether it be the quotidian journey of a heartbroken woman through London or the young girl whose poor eyesight and inability to read the blackboard is causing her teachers to think she is stupid, these stories emanate a subtle sadness and beauty, just like the African night sky as seen by the narrator of ‘Something Old, Something New’;
“Out on the balcony, the contrast startled him. Sunset has softened the sky, rimmed the west with pinks and soft orange.”