Strangely enough, Lyrics Alley, by Leila Aboulela, strongly reminds me of a Louisa May Alcott book. Both tell engaging compelling stories while having a rather strong moralizing tone. (There are also happen to be a few plot similarities to a specific Louisa May Alcott book.)
Lyrics Alley tells the story of an upper class family living in Urmduram, Sudan in the 1950s. (I hadn’t previously heard of Urmduran, but it turns out to be the largest city in Sudan, located across the Nile from the capitol, Khartoum). As the book begins, the family patriarch, Mahmoud is ill and everyone from his daughter-in-law to the family tutor to business associates must visit and express their sympathy. Visiting is such an important social custom that lists are kept of who came and people are judged based on how promptly they arrived.
Lyrics Alley was a good book for learning about Sudanese customs, from the interesting (brides learn a special dance imitating a bird to perform at their wedding)- to the more startling (the bride traditionally danced naked). It also highlighted the relationship between Sudan and Egypt. Egypt was seen as more sophisticated and desirable than Sudan. A lot of what was admired in Egypt though seemed to be the presence of more European culture, almost as if Egypt were a proxy for Europe. This plays out in the book in the interaction of Mahmoud’s two wives, one Sudanese and traditional and one Egyptian and modern. Each one has her flaws.
I’ve actually left out the main plot line of the book, but I don’t see how to discuss it without giving it away too soon. Suffice it to say that “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is also an important theme.
I learned from the author’s note at the end of the book that Lyrics Alley is actually based on Leila Aboulela’s family, particularly the story of her uncle. That was a valuable thing to learn because there was a part of the story that felt a bit too conveniently feel-good to me, but it turns out to have been true, which makes me feel much better about it!
Lyrics Alley takes a positive attitude toward religion and Islam, but draws a clear distinction between religion and custom. In a newspaper interview, Leila Aboulela has some very interesting things to say about the role of religion in her novels:
“When you write about a Muslim woman, like I did with my previous novels – Minaret, for example, which is about a woman who starts to wear the hijab – it sets all the alarm bells ringing. When the man is religious it doesn’t seem to impact the reader as much. There’s a lot about Islam in [Lyrics Alley] as well, but because it’s from a man’s point of view it doesn’t have the same impact.”
And in Western novels:
“People take for granted when they see Christianity inside novels, but when you come in from a different perspective, as a Muslim, for instance, you can see it’s been very much influenced by Christianity. The example I’ve used before is Jane Eyre: Mr Rochester can’t marry Jane because he’s already married to Bertha. This is so Christian. In a Muslim situation he can just marry both. Nobody’s going to say, ‘Oh, this is hitting us on the head with Christianity,’ but it’s there.”
I think you can tell Leila Aboulela is someone with interesting perspectives! She writes well too, despite a tendency to explicitly state to the reader that this character is selfish or that this other character’s actions are driven by her desire for her mother’s affection. I found the ending particularly satisfying, neither too light or too dark. (I feel like the ending of a book is the part that I am most likely to be unhappy with. Perhaps that’s true of most people?)
Sudan and South Sudan often come up when I tell people about my book-from-every-country project. They ask me what I will do about new countries like South Sudan. I do plan to read books for any new country that is formed (recognized by the U.N.) during the course of my reading project. (Initially I thought that Palestine would be the most likely candidate. I never would have expected that Ukraine would start to seem like a possibility). Although Lyrics Alley was written before the split into Sudan and South Sudan, it is clearly set in the northern portion of the country so I think it is an appropriate choice.