GRAVEL HEART – Abulrazak Gurnah

The story: Salim grows up on the island of Zanzibar in the 1970s. The story is set initially on the Indian Ocean island, and latterly in London, UK.
Salim believes his father does not want him. There’s a huge, dark family secret that no-one, mother Saida, Uncle Amir or Father /Baba are willing or able to speak of. As a consequence, Father inexplicably leaves home, remains in the neighbourhood but retreats into isolation, silence and depression.
The boy is sent to London to live with Uncle Amir and his family in London. The city bewilders him and he tells us what it’s like to be an immigrant in the UK. (Here I’m adding the comment: it’s pretty tough!) We follow Salim’s life into maturity with its attendant loves and heartbreaks. After ten long years, Salim goes home for a visit, but his Mother dies before he arrives.
However, Salim is reunited with his Baba, returned after years in Kuala Lumpur, during which time he has healed. At last, over many hours, Father relates the story of the family disgrace to his son. Finally Salim’s life and family come into perspective.
Despite his Father’s wish, Salim returns to London and his Western life, only to learn his Baba died of a stroke the day after his departure.
My first Zanzibari novel.
An intricate family story told with restraint and tenderness against two very different backgrounds: the Indian Ocean Muslim island versus multicultural modern London. However, the book also contains some sharp passages about British colonialism and modern corrupt African rulers.
I enjoyed the book. Although I live in Africa, I live in southern Africa which is geographically and culturally far removed from East African Zanzibar. Experiencing the Swahili milieu was a new experience for me.

I would like to read more of Gurnah’s novels. Gurnah has a stellar writing career: both long and short-listed for the Booker Prize; the Whitbread, Commonwealth Writers. In 2016 he was a Booker Prize Judge. He has eight novels to his credit. Currently he’s Professor of English at the University of Kent.



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