Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat
Claire is a seven year old girl whose mother died in childbirth and whose father is raising her alone. On her seventh birthday he decides that she deserves more than he can give her and makes a painful decision—but then Claire disappears. This story, set in the town of Ville Rose Haiti, is one of Danticat's most beautiful and poignant. It reads like a series of stories about various citizens of the village but in the end they all come together. Nozias, Claire's father, is a good, loving man but he fears his daughter would be better off in a home where she had more advantages. Still he cannot bear the thought of giving her up. Claire is a good, obedient, sweet child who only wants to make everyone happy. The narrative is lyrical and imbued with an almost magical beauty.
All of the secondary characters are vividly described and memorable. The people of Ville Rose have a saying in their Creole French, fòk nou voye je youn sou lòt - we must all look after one another, and that seems to be the moral of this story. Just a beautiful book.
The Sand Child and A Palace in the Old Village by Tahar Ben Jelloun
Both of these novels were fairly short and they seemed to have a similar theme—how disillusionment and disappointment can drive someone to actions that, though well-intended, just make matters worse.
In The Sand Child a man, who is the father of seven daughters, is disappointed and distraught to the point that when his wife becomes pregnant for the eighth time, he decides that whatever happens, he is going to have a son. Of course a daughter is born but he arranges everything in such a secretive manner that the child's sex is concealed and only he, the mother, and the elderly midwife know the truth. The baby is named Ahmed and the celebrations begin. A girl raised to be a boy is a familiar theme throughout many cultures—especially those in which sexism is strong. Arab folklore about other such man/women is retold in the story, but even among Christians, the story of Pope Joan persists throughout history. By the time Ahmed is a man, her father has died and she is a bewildered, alienated despot who rules her older sisters and mother while having nothing to do with them. Eventually she leaves her home, changes her name to Zahara and begins her torturous quest for identity.
In A Palace in the Old Village, Mohammed, the main character, left Morocco for France to find a job. He worked in an auto plant and raised his children in a Paris suburb but now he has to retire and he longs for home. His children, who are grown and some out on their own, are thoroughly modern children who love France and have no desire to leave. His only comfort is his beloved nephew with Downs Syndrom, who he has raised and who is a constant joy to him. Mohammed gets the idea to return to his village in Morocco and build a beautiful home—so lovely that all of his children with their spouses and babies will want to live there with him. Naturally, this does not go well.
One of the things I am continually struck by in reading these books set in North Africa and the Middle East is the luscious, poetic, almost magical aesthetic of the people from the wealthiest to the most humble. They all seem to share a deep, heart-felt longing for the beauty of the poetry, music, food, and other sensory delights of their culture. It is something I see very little of in Western literature. Both of these stories were sad but well-worth the read in my opinion.
United Arab Emirates:
The Wink of the Mona Lisa and Other Stories from the Gulf (Memoirs of Arabia) by Mohammad al Murr
I found this to be an extremely charming collection of stories. Some were sad (a man on a long flight to Dubai strikes up a conversation with the matron sitting next to him and returns from the restroom to find she has died), some are very funny (a man takes his little girl to the circus and is unprepared for the deluge of questions she asks), and some reflect the trials and tribulations of modern life (a professional young woman in Dubai wants her lover to marry her but keeps forgetting to tell him that.) The title story is hilarious about a man who has never met the right woman until he attends a relative's wedding and notices an alluring woman winking at him.
Of all the stories from Gulf countries I've read, this collection of stories was the most varied and the most reflective of contemporary life.
Thanks for reading and I am on to Iceland!