I’ve never read anything by Leïla Slimani until now, but her latest book, The Country of Others, sounded appealing to me – and as it’s translated from French, it means I can contribute to this year’s #WITMonth (Women in Translation Month).
Originally published as Le pays des autres and available now in an English translation by Sam Taylor, the novel is set in France and Morocco during the 1940s and 50s. Mathilde is a young woman from the Alsace region of France who, in the final years of World War II, falls in love with a Moroccan soldier, Amine, who has been fighting for the French. Bored with her life and looking for adventure, Mathilde marries Amine and moves with him to Meknes in Morocco where he has inherited some farmland. Here, as she struggles to settle into her new home, Mathilde begins to think she has made a huge mistake; this is certainly not the romantic, idyllic life she’d imagined herself leading. Loneliness, hostile neighbours, financial difficulties, an unhappy, abusive husband and political upheaval as Morocco tries to gain independence from France are just some of the problems Mathilde has to deal with.
Mathilde finds that the other French people in Meknes look down on her for marrying a Moroccan Muslim, while Amine’s Moroccan friends are suspicious of his white, European, Catholic wife. It’s not an easy situation for Amine either and he becomes torn between admiration for Mathilde and embarrassment at her refusal to behave the way he believes a woman should, which leads to some unpleasant scenes of domestic violence and cruelty. The novel is written from the perspectives of both Mathilde and Amine, as well as several more characters, all of whom are trying to find a place for themselves in this ‘country of others’: these include Aïcha, Mathilde and Amine’s daughter, who is aware that her mixed race makes her different from the other children at school; Selma, Amine’s teenage sister, a young woman who feels trapped in this male-dominated society and is desperate for freedom; and Omar, their brother, a fierce and violent man who has joined the fight for Moroccan independence and wants the French out of his country.
Although I did have a lot of sympathy for the circumstances in which most of the characters found themselves, many of them were such unlikeable people I found myself less moved by their stories than I would have expected. It didn’t help that the book is written in a strangely detached, passionless style, which I suppose is appropriate for the bleak and miserable events that are being described, but didn’t enable me to form any real emotional connection with any of the characters, not even Mathilde or Aïcha. Sometimes I almost felt that I was reading a work of non-fiction rather than a novel – and in fact, I discovered when I was halfway through the book that it’s the first in a planned trilogy drawing on Slimani’s own family history, which probably explains why it felt like a memoir.
Despite not particularly enjoying or even liking this book, I still found it interesting. I wasn’t really prepared for something so relentlessly depressing and completely without hope and I probably won’t continue with the other two books, but I do feel that I learned a lot from this one – about the challenges faced by interracial couples, the place of women in 1940s Moroccan society, and the political situation as the country moved towards independence. This was a worthwhile read, but I don’t think Slimani is an author for me.
Book 36/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.