In this first volume of a planned trilogy of novels about race and the empowerment of women, Slimani draws on personal family history. Like Mathilde, Slimani’s Alsatian grandmother fell in love with a Moroccan colonel during the war, and the Franco-Moroccan author grew up in Rabat.
As the 2016 Prix Goncourt winner for âThe Perfect Nannyâ, Slimani shines through the ups and downs of tensions in her novels. Her sleek prose is full of emotional depth and insight, and blunt observations clarify each scene with force.
Dynamic female characters dominate the book. Mathilde has the task of raising her children and integrating into a foreign country. Her little daughter Aicha triumphs over the bullying at her French Catholic school and is best in class. Amine’s teenage sister Selma seeks an independent identity as a modern woman. “What we hide,” thinks Selma, “under our veils and skirts is so fiery and glorious that we could reveal everything for it.”
Although the novel is set at a time of increasing anti-colonial fervor, Slimani distances women from open politics, and we are reminded that the women’s realm is domestic.
Amine, despite his status as landowner and military service, finds himself exposed to constant fanaticism from the French: âYou can say what you want,â says his French neighbor, âbut this place becomes one [expletive] when we are no longer here to make the trees bloom, to overturn the earth, to soak them with our sweat. âThe debris of colonization is most evident in the angry thoughts that Amine keeps to itself.
Race is a bit tricky. Mathilde is a tall, fair-skinned French woman. As she watches Africa – the landscape, the unfamiliar food, the children playing in the streets – Africa watches her. “Her height, her whiteness, her status as a foreign woman have all kept her away from the heart of things,” writes Slimani.
Colonialism is never brutal through the eyes of a white woman. It is rather evident in how her mother-in-law, an educated European, refuses to enter the kitchen or her daughter’s white friends assume that her father is the chauffeur. The close observation of the natives – the page who refuses to speak French to Amine and Mathilde – and the judgment of her own kind – two French women who make fun of her because she is “pregnant by an Arab” – make this difficult Dynamics in addition. These subtle but visceral attacks feel like a punch in the pit of your stomach. Slimani exercises tight control over conflict, and when those passing moments escalate into disaster, the consequences feel acute but inevitable.
When the nationalist movement turns to violence, the family becomes like a grafted lemon sprig on an orange tree that Aicha calls “Lemange”. âWe are like your tree: half lemon and half orange,â Amine says to Aicha. “We’re on either side.”
Do women end up getting what they want? Despite all social customs, Mathilde becomes a village doctor and teaches herself to treat basic wounds and ailments. But their medical charity, a small plot point that isn’t making much headway, feels excessive. Selma is forced to marry an older man, and Aicha does not understand this but knows enough to conclude that “something was called bad luck and men were capable of cruelty”. Danger mixes with pleasure, and that desperate panic of femininity feels strangely universal.
Sometimes these appeals to feminism seem exaggerated. The characters, who otherwise seem unable to navigate their positions in the world, articulate suspiciously in their inner observations. Slimani describes how the nationalist movement roaring on the streets is supposed to analogize women’s liberation: “Didn’t the nationalists themselves establish a direct connection between the desire for independence and the need for women’s emancipation?”
Although Slimani’s prose, translated from French by Sam Taylor, is breathtaking, the narrative structure, strung together in vignettes, is sometimes blurry and obscures the chronology. The book’s strength lies in its ability to weave these disparate parts together into a satisfying, if annoying, look at how power works in the struggle for personal and political independence.
IN THE COUNTRY OF OTHERS
By Leila Slimani
Penguin Books, 320 pages, $ 26
Kyung Mi Lee can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @_kyungmilee
Kyung Mi Lee can be reached at [email protected]