Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Locust and the Bird by Hanan Al-Shaykh (a review)

The Locust and the Bird: My Mother's Story
2.5 out of 5: In this “memoir,” Lebanese writer Hanan Al-Shaykh tells the story of her mother Kamila. Forced into marriage when only 14 years old and when in love with another man, Kamila spends the rest of her life seeking happiness and love within the constraints of an oppressive society. Al-Shaykh’s fictionalized portrayal, written as a first-person account of Kamila’s life from early youth through death, provides a rare insider’s view into a cloistered world.

Kamila narrates her story with refreshing directness, but the simplicity of the prose often lacks lyricism and emotion. Further, while I respect Kamila’s unrelenting strength in the face of great oppression, I was repeatedly frustrated by her ever-present superficiality and immaturity. In typical fashion, when a neighbor gives Kamila a coin to make a devotion to Sitt Zaynab during a pilgrimmage, Kamila decides to keep the coin for herself: "Forgive me, Sitt Zaynab. ... You've so many jewels here. Let me keep this coin. Let's pretend I've put the coin inside the enclosure." In another instance, stuck in a horrible predicament, Kamila makes a promise to God that she will never set foot in her lover's room again if God will protect her from discovery. God delivered his half of the bargain, but Kamila "found I wasn't putting on my shoes and going home." Undoubtedly, such falseness was necessary for Kamila’s survival, but it’s not a particularly likeable trait in a protagonist. The Locust and the Bird reveals an unknown and interesting world in a less-than-compelling way.

5 comments:

An Anonymous Child said...

I still haven't figured out how to criticize memoirs when the story is just bad. How can I say that I disliked the characters when they're real people? Or that the plot bothered me when it's something that really happened? I always feel vaguely guilty for disliking memoirs but I guess that just speaks volumes about the quality of the writing.

And this is a fictionalized portrayal too... Hmm. I don't even know what to think now. Except that perhaps this isn't a book I should bother reading.

Chad Aaron Sayban said...

Just because it is a memoir rather than fiction doesn't mean that the writer is off the hook for not creating a compelling character. There seems to have been a lot of 'foreign memoir' type books published recently and unfortunately most of them have not been all that good. As always, thanks for the review.

Zibilee said...

I read another review of this book that raved about it, so it's good to hear an alternate view on it. Judging by your review, it doesn't sound as though it would be a great book for me, and I think I'll probably just skip it. Thanks for your honesty.

Diane said...

I was planning on reading this one, but I've seen a few reviews where the reader, like you, seemed underfwhelmed by this one, so I'm not sure now.

rjnagle said...

Funny, I'm in the middle of a major book buying spree and trying to look up a title I remember reading on your blog. Funny coincidence seeing this title because I waffled about putting on my buy list (and ultimately did, mainly as a result of Marjane Satrapi's blurb.). I suspected this book had problems, based on the reviews, but I became interested in her earlier s.s. collection, I swept the sun off rooftops. (Short stories can concentrate your inspiration in a pleasing way--for example Michener's Tales of the south pacific short story collection (which is considered respectable, in contrast to his novels). Anyway, I just wanted to make this remark, now I am off to find that title on your blog -- but let me mention a URL that blew my mind for names of obscure writers . I have spent days investigating the writers on that page (about 80% done).