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Review by Theresa Munoz
IN Abdulrazak Gurnah’s ninth novel Gravel Heart, one episode humorously describes an aspect of the modern migrant experience. Salim, a young East African who has moved to London, is taken shopping for winter clothing by his uncle and aunt, who live there. They project onto him their fears about the London chill as his Uncle Amir warns: “You’ll freeze your b***s off!” The clothing they choose for him is comically ill-fitting: a polo neck sweater that chokes him, a navy blue raincoat two sizes too big to “accommodate woollies” and a scarf, gloves and hat. Salim regrets his new kit that he is expected to wear at all times: “I wish they had allowed me to choose less embarrassing clothes.”
Awkwardly-fitting clothes, or rather, discomfort in one’s appearance while in a new country is part of the migrant experience. Gurnah’s previous novels include By the Sea, Desertion and the Booker Prize shortlisted Paradise. Gravel Heart joins them as a work of post-colonial literature that entertainingly intertwines migration and a tale of family drama.
The story opens in 1970s Zanzibar in Tanzania (where Gurnah himself was born). Salim is the only child of middle-class government workers. His life is a routine of chores and Koran school, even in summer. When asked to write about his summer holidays for a school essay, Salim pens a brief piece about a made-up bicycle ride in the country and his falsehoods earn him praise from the headmaster. That one’s imagined life is much preferred over reality, is a lesson Salim learns over and over again.
As with Gurnah’s other works, a family secret lies at the novel's heart. Salim lives with his mother Saida, his father Masud and his charismatic Uncle Amir, whom he adores. But the novel begins with the sentence: “My father didn’t want me.” When Salim is seven, Masud moves out of the house to a rented room at the back of a nearby corner shop. The father and son’s relationship becomes one of silent routine, as Salim’s only contact with Masud is to drop off meals prepared by his mother. Uncle Amir disappears for a few days, then announces a surprise move to London. The comings and goings of his family remain a mystery to Salim, who grows up to be a secretive teenager. At the end of Part One, Uncle Amir announces he will sponsor Salim’s move to England to study business and the novel takes an exciting turn.
Gurnah has rightly been praised for his masterful storytelling. His writing is reflective, blunt and – comic moments aside – has an unwaveringly sober tone. Despite some forays into the past to fill in gaps of family history, the tale moves in a linear fashion to describe Salim’s life from bookish child to contemplative adult. Narrated in the past tense, the writing feels a little old-fashioned: long paragraphs, insertions of old letters and minimal dialogue. One forgets that the novel is set in the last decade, so that later mentions of email seem out of place.
Gurnah hits upon an intriguing conflict: the post-colonial individual who becomes anglicised out of choice. It’s a poignant moment when Salim realises he is becoming naturalised. His awareness of the fact kicks in when he starts using superlatives to describe England: “Here they have plenty which is the best in the world – the best goalkeeper in the world, the best university in the world, the best hospital in the world ...” Gurnah conveys Salim’s shifting conception of his own nationality – an diminishing loyalty to the country of his birth – very well.
What works less well is how the family saga plays out. Eventually Salim learns why Masud abandoned their family, but by this point Salim’s personal life in London, namely his romantic episodes with women and some incidents of racism, has taken centre stage. The timing of the big “reveal” feels too late. But this is not to speak ill of the novel, which despite minor flaws is an emotive tale about betrayal, families and the East African diaspora.