The Country of Others by Leïla Slimani

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.

The Tenth Gift by Jane Johnson

When we think about slavery it’s not usually the capture and sale of white Europeans that comes to mind, but that is the topic at the heart of Jane Johnson’s The Tenth Gift. In August 1625, a church in Mount’s Bay, Cornwall was raided by Barbary pirates who took sixty men, women and children into captivity to be sold at the slave markets of Morocco. In The Tenth Gift, Johnson imagines the story of one of these captives – a young woman called Catherine Anne Tregenna.

When we first meet Catherine, or Cat as she is known, she is working as a lady’s maid at a large manor house in Cornwall. A marriage has been arranged for her with her cousin, Robert Bolitho, but Cat wants more out of life. Her skills with a needle have won her a commission from the Countess of Salisbury and she dreams of joining a guild and becoming a master embroiderer, even if she has to leave Cornwall to do it. However, she is soon to travel further from Cornwall than she could ever have imagined. Abducted from church by Barbary corsairs along with her friends, family and neighbours, Cat finds herself on a ship heading towards North Africa, her fate to be decided by the corsair captain.

But Cat’s is not the only story to be told in this novel. In the present day, we meet Julia Lovat, a woman who has been having an affair with Michael, her best friend’s husband, a seven-year relationship which has just come to an end. As a parting gift, Michael gives her an old book of embroidery patterns, but when Julia opens the book she is confronted by something unusual – a series of diary entries written in the margins by someone called Cat who lived in the seventeenth century. Julia is soon engrossed in reading about Cat’s ordeal, but it is only when she visits Morocco herself that she is able to put together all the pieces of Cat’s story.

I found a lot to enjoy in The Tenth Gift, which isn’t surprising as I’ve previously enjoyed two of Jane Johnson’s other Moroccan novels, The Sultan’s Wife and Court of Lions. She writes so vividly about Morocco, describing all of the sounds, sights and smells with a vibrancy that really brings the setting to life. Her depiction of seventeenth century Cornwall is equally well done and it’s obvious that she knows both places very well. The two storylines – past and present – fit together perfectly and the links between them don’t feel too contrived, although there are some supernatural undertones, particularly towards the end, that I thought seemed unnecessary.

I liked Cat and found her story fascinating but, as happens so often with these dual timeframe novels, I thought the present day one was much weaker. I never really managed to warm to Julia and didn’t have much sympathy for her relationship problems; I did become more invested in her story once she arrived in Morocco, but I think the book would have worked better as a straight historical novel without the modern day sections. Cat’s adventures are so interesting and I appreciated the way Jane Johnson tries to give an explanation for why the corsairs behaved the way they did and explores both the similarities and differences between Christian and Islamic cultures.

If you do read this book and enjoy it, you might also enjoy The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson, which deals with a different pirate raid, this time on Iceland’s Westman Islands in 1627, or The Sea-Hawk by Rafael Sabatini, a wonderfully entertaining novel which also takes us from Cornwall to the Barbary Coast.

Thanks to Head of Zeus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Sultan’s Wife by Jane Johnson

The Sultan’s Wife is set in Morocco in the year 1677 and is narrated by two different characters. The first is Nus-Nus, a eunuch slave in the palace of the Sultan Moulay Ismail and the second is Alys Swann, an Englishwoman who has been captured at sea by corsairs and given to the Sultan as a gift. Amidst the dangers and conspiracies of Ismail’s court, Nus-Nus and Alys form a friendship and try to help each other survive.

I haven’t read any of Jane Johnson’s previous novels and chose to read this one purely because the setting sounded so interesting. I’ve never read a novel set in 17th century Morocco and I fell in love with the setting from the very first chapter. Everything was described so vividly, I wasn’t surprised to find that the author lives in Morocco herself and has already written two other books set in the same country. I learned so many fascinating little facts about Moroccan history and culture and about the building of the historic city of Meknes (which was intended to rival Versailles). There are also a few chapters where the action moves to England and the court of Charles II in Restoration-period London. It was interesting to be shown the English court through the eyes of Nus-Nus and to see the ways in which it was both different and similar to the Moroccan court. But although there are lots of descriptions of food, clothing, furnishings etc, the pace of the story never slows down and there’s always something happening.

Nus-Nus and Alys are fictional characters but Moulay Ismail, the Sultan, was a real person and is considered to be one of the cruelest rulers in history (one of his nicknames is ‘the bloodthirsty’). This is something that Jane Johnson portrays very convincingly – based on some of the things he does in this novel, living in his household must have been a terrifying experience! Nus-Nus and the other slaves and courtiers are constantly in fear of their lives, knowing that they are at the mercy of his whim, and they have learned to be extra careful when they see him dressed in yellow as this indicates he’s in a particularly murderous mood. Ismail’s wife, Zidana, is also portrayed as a villain; a jealous, scheming person who uses poisons and witchcraft to attack her enemies.

Of the two narrators, I didn’t find Alys Swann a very memorable character but I did really like Nus-Nus. In fact, he was the main reason why I enjoyed this book as much as I did. Nus-Nus was captured from his Senufo tribe as a young man and before coming to the Sultan’s palace had spent some time assisting a British doctor who taught him to read and write and to speak English. These skills make him invaluable to both Ismail and Zidana and are the reason why he’s in a position where he’s able to befriend and help Alys. As a black slave and a eunuch, Nus-Nus is often treated unkindly by other members of the court, but still has a lot of dignity and courage. I thought he was a wonderful character.

The story does touch on some controversial subjects including slavery, racism and prejudice, torture and cruelty (some of the things described in the novel are very brutal and characters lose their lives in some gruesome ways) but I thought everything was handled sensitively. The only criticism I really have is that Alys didn’t have a very distinctive voice; sometimes she didn’t sound any different from Nus-Nus and I didn’t immediately realise the narrator had changed. Apart from that, The Sultan’s Wife was exciting, informative and swept me away to another time and place, which is what I’m always looking for in historical fiction. I loved it!

Review: The Saffron Gate by Linda Holeman

Linda Holeman’s books are perfect comfort reading for me. She writes the kind of historical fiction I love, with just the right combination of romance, history and adventure. One of the things I like about her books is the way she chooses such interesting settings (19th century Afghanistan in The Moonlit Cage, for example, or British-ruled India in In a Far Country). The Saffron Gate is set in 1930s Morocco, a time and place I know very little about, but Holeman really makes the setting come alive, from the noise and bustle of the souks in Marrakesh, the taste of hot couscous and mint tea, the vibrant colours of the trees and flowers.

But Morocco in the 1930s can be a dangerous place for a woman on her own, as our narrator soon discovers. Her name is Sidonie O’Shea and she’s travelling to North Africa from her home in Albany, New York in search of her fiancé Etienne Duverger, who disappeared without word, leaving behind a mysterious letter from his sister in Marrakesh. When Sidonie arrives in Morocco she realises the enormity of her task – she has no idea where to start looking for Etienne and it seems that certain people are determined to stop her from finding him at all costs. As Sidonie continues to search, she begins to fall in love with Morocco and at the same time uncovers some important truths about both Etienne and herself.

There were times when I wanted to throw this book across the room in disgust, not because it was badly written, but because one of the characters was just so horrible and so cruel to Sidonie I didn’t think I could bear to read any more. Not only that, but Sidonie is far too innocent and trusting, which started to frustrate me after a while. Somewhere in the middle of the book though, the story began to go in a different direction to what I was expecting and I started to feel more hopeful of a happy ending. Whether I got one or not I’ll leave you to find out for yourself.

I learned a lot from this book about the role of women in 1930s Morocco, how they lived, and how they were scorned and looked down upon if they didn’t have a husband. There was also a lot of information about their fashions, customs, superstitions – and some fascinating details, such as the rituals of the hammam (public baths).

I’ve enjoyed all of the Linda Holeman books that I’ve read, but I think this one has been my favourite so far. I would highly recommend The Saffron Gate to anyone who likes to read long historical fiction novels that allow you to immerse yourself in another culture for a while.