“—and there, on the table under her bedroom window, lies the voice that has set her dreaming again. Frangments of a life lived a long, long time ago. Across a hundred years the woman’s voice speaks to her–so clearly that she cannot believe it is not possible to pick up her pen and answer.”
A novel begins in midsentence intimidates me. It’s the telltale sign of a multi-narrative story that will unfold obliquely. Maybe this is why I have put The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif off for a long time. It was shortlisted for Booker prize in 1999 (the winner that year went to Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee). It’s one of those books in which a story unfolds within another story. Although a key part of the novel’s maturity is its ability to face up squarely to both politics and love, the structure of the book takes some patience getting used to. It’s like hearing a story from six degree of separation, with snippets and fragments of details supplemented later. Indeed the history and mystery are encountered piecemeal by the reader, who is to fit together the intersecting stories at the same pace as the characters. The narrative voice switches constantly between Anna’s journal (a century ago), Sharif’s sister’s journal (in the present), Amal’s inner musings or a simple third person narrator. This inconsistency marks the pace of the book. In spite of this constant shift in voices, I find The Map of Love very accessible. Some parts are harder to read because of the Arabic expressions; and the book’s richness of detail calls for a slower more attentive pace. Written in English by an Egyptian-born writer, this intricately plotted novel is set in the present and deeply immersed in the past. It is both a history lesson and a heart-racing romance that walks the fine line between an “orientalist” perspective and an attitude that represents Egyptians and their culture from their own point of view.
I’m indebted to the Egyptian gentleman who recommended this book to me while we were at breakfast at the hotel this morning. He saw that I was reading Borges and asked if I might be interested in reading something written an Egyptian. See how serendipitously books find the readers?