I received this book from a GoodReads giveaway.
The book follows the story of two young women, Khayyam (an American of French and Muslim-Indian parents) in modern day France (where she spends her summers) and Leila (a Muslim from the Ottoman Empire) crisscrossing from Turkey to England to France.
Khayyam is an aspiring art historian, the child of multi-cultural academics, she is an over-achiever, slightly quirky, and filled with self-doubt and angst. While not wanting to be defined by her relationships with men, she spends a lot of time (like many teenaged girls) obsessing over boys. Do they like her, why don’t they like her, how can she make them jealous, will she ever understand them? She’s also angry. Angry at men, angry at history, angry at white people. While she vacations in Paris and eats pastries.
Leila on the the other hand, is the concubine of the Pasha. Given literally no choice and no freedom, she makes the dangerous decision to take a lover (a Christian, her Giaour, an infidel). Both pay a hefty price for this betrayal. Unfortunately, there isn’t much more to reveal of Leila without spoilers, and what remains is rather scant anyway.
The author does an excellent job of revealing Leila’s story in bits, unfolding like a mystery through the discoveries that Khayyam makes in the modern day. Unfortunately, because of the belabored point that Ahmed is making with this novel, Leila’s story feels unfinished and I believe short-changed. Which brings me to my biggest complaint about this novel. The point that Ahmed wishes to get across is that there are marginalized people throughout history, and there is little doubt that women are the most marginalized, especially women of color.
I don’t dispute that there are marginalized groups of people, or that women often take the brunt of this silencing. What I do take umbrage with is the manner in which Ahmed makes this point. Belabored isn’t strong enough, hammered does slightly more justice, perhaps the two combined is the best way to describe it.
Ahmed is clearly a talented writer, but this novel lacks any subtlety or beauty in craft. The point that women have been marginalized can be made through story-telling, it can be made through the choices the characters have to make… does it need to be shouted at the reader over and over and over and over again? It’s as though the author doesn’t believe her audience is smart enough to understand the point she is trying to make. But, I get it.
We all get it.
I found it more of a distraction from what could have been a very effective and beautiful novel.