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Lyrics Alley, by Leila Aboulela.

April 9, 2013

Lyrics Alley, by Leila Aboulela. Grove Press (2012), Paperback, 320 pages.


A brilliant, bittersweet novel about a large Sudanese family, divided over old values and new ones, and facing an accident of one of its sons that upsets its delicate balance.

Leila Aboulela has crafted a relatively short novel that interweaves several plots and concerns and features several main characters. The story centers on the complex family of Mahmoud Abuzied, a merchant and power-broken in Sudan, and his two wives: the older one, African, and traditional, and the younger one, beautiful, Egyptian, and modern; each controlling her half of the family home and balancing each other. When the son whom Mahmoud was training to carry on his work is paralyzed, he, the son, and the woman the son was to marry must reshape their lives, and the delicate balance that Mahmoud has maintained is thrown into disorder. In counterpoint to the wealthy Abuzied family, Aboulela includes that of their children’s tutor, a man devoted to his own wife and children, struggling to make ends meet, and with crises of his own.

The novel is a fictionalized version of Aboulela’s own family living in Sudan as it moved into independence in the 1950s. She is herself from Sudan and has heard stories of this period told by her grandparents. This book was inspired by the life of her uncle who became a well-known Sudanese poet.

The story that Aboulela tells is full of particular local flavor. We are given rich detail about the traditional lifestyle in the part of the mansion/compound control by the older wife; the living arrangements and furnishing, the food the women prepare and serve, the daily rituals and chores. In contrast, we are shown the sophisticated quarters of the younger wife, shaped by her Egyptian upbringing and indirectly by western ideas. Although Mahmoud courts the British in his economic and political dealings, he enjoyed a daily life that was urban, cosmopolitan and shaped by his young Egyptian wife. But the wives co-exist only when their paths do not intersect. Mahmoud expresses his frustration on a rare occasion of seeing them together.

His two wives in the same room! It was a sight he had never seen before and wished never to see again. They belonged to two sides of the saraya, two sides of himself. He was the only one to negotiate between these two worlds, to glide between them, to come and go back at will. It was his prerogative.

Along with its local, particular details, Lyrics Alley explicitly addresses the universal questions of why do bad things happen to good people and how do we go on living when they do. Aboulela is herself a strong Muslim who believes Allah is able and willing to make things right again, even when denying our original desires. While such belief undergirds her book, religion is not its main theme, as it was in Minaret. In this book I learned about traditional Sudanese culture, but not about Islam. Here Aboulela looks most closely at the relations between individuals who honor different values and practices.  She forces us to consider the question of how far should we push others to follow our own practices, such as female circumcision, and when we should be willing to compromise. How she will resolve these questions keeps us engaged in her story.

Gradually the various characters find new ways of living that allow them to adapt to the realities they are forced to accept. The son who was hurt rediscovers reading. “He reads, and there is a reason not to die.” Eventually he starts to write.

The first poem had compelled itself into being, thrown itself out of him, thrust itself out of him almost in spite of himself. Words that clamored to exist. There was a charm in that, but now he carves ability, a sense of control; he wants to excel at that smooth transition between emotion and art.

The book ends with the family tutor entering the spacious apartment he had dreamed of acquiring carrying his infant daughter on one arm and guiding his aged father.

Here he was with his bliss on one arm and his burden on the other. Balanced. Striving up with two attachments. Holding them both at the same time. It was a fresh start of life and its gloomy narrowing end. Loving them both, serving them both.

Aboulela is a talented writer and despite its moments of pain, Lyrics Alley is a joy to read. Her choice of words and structuring of her complex story is superb. Like the characters in her novel, she brings balance to her writing. As author Tahmima Anam, notes the book brings together the “competing claims of the political and the intimate, of modernity and tradition, of duty and individual freedom.”

I heartily recommend this book to a variety of readers; those who love good writing, those who are concerned with the impact of chance of individuals and families, and those who care about the post-colonial world.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2013 8:18 am

    I’ve been meaning to add Aboulela to my reading list. I hadn’t heard of this specific book before, but now I definitely want to read it! Since several of her other books seem to be set largely outside of Sudan, I was hesitating to make them my my read for Sudan, but this sounds perfect.

    • April 10, 2013 9:54 am

      Yes, this would be an excellent book for Sudan. I learned lots about the culture and history of the time before today’s violence there. And she does write well.

  2. April 10, 2013 9:04 am

    I’ve read a short story from Leila. The story might not be catch.. but her writing is so engaging. And of course, beautiful. Lyrical. I am looking forward to reading her novels.

  3. April 13, 2013 2:30 pm

    I enjoyed Minaret so I’m glad to confirm that she’s written other good books set more in Sudan rather than abroad. Thanks

  4. April 16, 2013 10:20 am

    Yes, her books are worth reading on several different levels.

  5. April 19, 2013 1:18 pm

    Leila is one author I would very much love to read since I’ve read only fine raves of her work. Your great review has increased my longing.

    • April 20, 2013 10:03 am

      Do find one of her books. I think you will like it. I learned a great deal and particularly like her positive, but quiet inclusion of Islam in her books.

  6. July 3, 2013 11:12 am

    Superb-) I am trying to choose which one of her first novel I will read fist… i am tempted to read this one. Great great reviews my dear


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