Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah – hard truth is hidden at home

Kamila Shamsie in The Guardian:

TravelThe Booker-shortlisted novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah gives us a story with a secret at its core – and yet, there is nothing manipulative about the withholding of the truth, and no sense that the author is relying on a breadcrumb trail of clues to keep us reading. Instead, and more satisfyingly, he is writing about the cost of secrets that are based on imbalances of power – imbalances of class, gender and love. The “secret” at the start of the book seems nothing more than a domestic falling-out. Salim is seven, in 1970s Zanzibar, when his father abandons the house; at first his mother says he has only gone away for a few days. Soon it becomes clear that he has moved out and is renting a room in another part of town. At first she delivers him a basket of food every day, then she asks Salim to take over the duty. Neither parent ever speaks of the reason for their discord. The novel is divided into three parts. The first gives us Salim’s life in Zanzibar, growing up in a happy family that bafflingly becomes broken. Eventually certain truths about his mother’s life become distressingly clear to him, but he manages only a half-conversation about it with her and becomes increasingly isolated within his own anger and confusion. When his uncle Amir offers him the opportunity to move to London as a student, it seems like an escape.

The second part is Salim’s life in the UK, when he begins to understand more of what happened between his parents, and also discovers the sadness and dislocation of being away from home. He doesn’t know how to belong in the strange place in which he has found himself but feels increasingly cut off from the world he’s left behind. This is not a new subject for novelists – Gurnah himself has written about exile in his sixth novel By the Sea – but that does nothing to take away from its emotional strength. In By the Sea, the exiled figure was an asylum seeker, facing all the difficulties that such a position brings. Salim is in a far more privileged position – his education leads to employment and there is no fear of deportation or penury. His sorrows come from having two countries and no home; he also feels the awful weight of knowing he has cast himself out of his place of birth because something unbearable has happened that no one knows how to confront. The UK does, in time, become a kind of home with friends and lovers. But Salim never quite manages to follow his father’s advice: “As you travel keep your ear close to your heart.”

More here.