Hazel McHaffie

abduction

Nadia’s Song

The keening of the women was deafening, painful, the high-pitched mourning ululation of the Middle East rising from a half-million throats. The corniche was a river of black, hiding the sea beyond.

What an evocative opening paragraph! The book? Nadia’s Song by Soheir Khashoggi. This tale of forbidden love and divided loyalties is set against the colourful history of Egypt’s conflicts and cultures. The events of the 1940s in the Middle East especially, add a depth of historical accuracy and credibility to the story.

The mourning ululation from a half-million throats is for renowned Egyptian singer, Karima Ismail, known as ‘The Nightingale’, dead at fifty-three. The country is in mourning, and Karima’s daughter Gabriella is utterly devastated by this sudden unheralded bereavement of a second mother. She can find no closure, no comfort. Something is gnawing away at her: how could it be that her mother had taken drugs, died of an overdose, when she never touched the stuff? As a reporter, as a daughter, she needs answers.

Unravel back to the 1940s when Karima is a young girl, a servant, learning about the ways of the world. A major war is raging in Europe, stretching it’s invading fingers into the homes of rich and poor alike even in at-that-time-neutral Egypt. There are spies and collaborators everywhere, disguised and unremarkable. Watching, listening, liaising, accusing.

But for Karima and her childhood friend, Charles, son of her master, major changes are at work at a much more intimate and personal level. So much divides them in this hierarchical culture. Theirs is a forbidden love – spanning class and race; a love that could not be. Tragedy separates them, but not before a child is conceived. Following the death of Charles, she pours all her raw emotion into her singing.

The code of honour governing behaviour in their culture is strict and rigid. Karima has disgraced her family. Her brother Omar is beyond outraged. He exacts terrible extended revenge. But, desperate to salvage something from the wreckage, he nevertheless finds her a good husband, Munir, more than twice her age, who in turn sees her potential and introduces her to influential people who can nourish her beautiful and exceptional voice. She becomes ‘The Nightingale’.  But the greater her success, the harder Omar presses her for money.

Munir however falls more and more in love with his beautiful young wife and gladly accepts the baby Nadia as his own. But happiness is short lived. Nadia is just two years old when a night of rioting and violence tears her away from her parents. In the same fire, Munir suffers a serious heart attack, leaving him a shadow of his former self. Karima devotes herself to caring for him, but when demands increase for her to return to singing, he urges her to do so. She eventually relents, promising Munir she will, provided he gets better. The promise extracted he can die happy, knowing she will not waste her God-given talent.

Karima has now lost both daughter and husband, and the crushing sorrow adds even more pathos to her singing. Her fame escalates and she is in great demand professionally.

In reality, and unknown to her mother, the child Nadia has escaped from the burning building, and is found and rescued by a childless couple, Dr Tarik Misry and his wife Celine, who take her into their lives and hearts. They rename her Gabriella, and devote themselves to her happiness. Discovering she is not their biological child has a profound effect on Gabriella, and sets her off on a mission to discover her true parentage, and the reality of what really happened to her famous mother.

SPOILER ALERT
The truth is sordid and despicable. Gabriella’s uncle, Omar, from an early age mired in a dark world of drugs and debt and gambling and whoring, is jealous of his sister Karima’s success. He convinces himself that it was he who saved her by finding her a respectable husband; she owes him, big time. He leans on her heavily for money … time after time. For years, she does indeed bail him out, living modestly herself while funding his dissolute and reckless life, but there comes a day, after Gabriella has been reunited with her, when she finally holds firm against his entreaties. Her beloved daughter who was lost is now found, and she must concentrate her resources on being a good mother.

Incensed by her refusal, Omar exacts a fearful revenge: he drops hints about her being a spy, and fabricates a story of her undercover work that leads to her untimely and brutal death, disguised as suicide. Under Egyptian law, two thirds of her great wealth goes to her brother; Omar accepts it with little regret. Years pass.

But now Gabriella is a highly regarded reporter, probing for the truth, aided and abetted by her Irish boyfriend and Karima’s devoted friend and admirer, Farid Hamza, a high-ranking army Colonel. Between them they tighten the net.

However, Omar is not about to roll over and confess. He hatches a plot to abduct Gabriella, gain a king’s ransom in money, and then kill her anyway. Victory went to those who dared, he told himself. And he had always dared. The strong thrill of the plot drives him onwards.

There are just two and a half pages left to reveal the end result! You didn’t think I was going to spoil the finale, did you?!

It was fascinating to learn more of Middle Eastern history through the eyes of those living in that volatile part of the world. Sobering too, to be reminded of the rigid rules and double standards of the day and place.

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Room

Jack is five years old. He lives in a tiny single room measuring 11 feet square with a locked door, Bath, Toilet, Wardrobe, Bed, Table, Freezer, Cabinet, Rocker and TV. And Ma.

Their only contact with the outside world is a skylight and the night-time visits of ‘Old Nick.’ For Jack, ‘real’ is their room and each other. Everything else is ‘TV’ or ‘Outside Space’ – fantasy.

But Ma has her reasons for giving Jack these distorted perceptions. She may be  young and traumatised by the horror of being abducted at the age of nineteen and incarcerated in a shed for years, but she proves to be an inspirational teacher, using the rudiments of life to educate him – egg-shells, scraps of cardboard and fabric, the degrees of light coming through the skylight, the spit they leave after cleaning their teeth.

Then a chance advert on TV raises questions in Jack’s mind. How come Ma’s painkiller pills are on TV? The pills are real. TV is unreal. Suddenly his cosy assurance is shattered.

‘How can TV be pictures of real things?

I think about them all floating around in Outside Space outside the walls, the couch and the necklaces and the bread and the fillers and the airplanes and all the shes and hes, the boxers and the man with one leg and the puffy-haired woman, they’re floating past Skylight. I wave to them, but there’s skyscrapers as well and cows and ships and trucks, it’s crammed out there, I count all the stuff that might crash into Room. I can’t breathe right …’

Ma’s explanation is memorable: ‘Stories are a different kind of true.

But after spinning her own kind of ‘true’ for five years, she has her work cut out disabusing Jack of all the myths and misunderstandings she’s implanted in his head to prepare him for a reality more harsh, more scary than anything she’s told him so far. Life outside.

RoomThrough Jack’s eyes we see the taken-for-granted world in a whole new light. Scary stuff. But sufficiently convincing for it to come as a surprise to hear a dispassionate perspective: ‘The despot’s victims have an eerie pallor and appear to be in a borderline catatonic state.’ Jack is a ‘malnourished boy, unable to walk.’ (As you can see, I’m trying not to give anything of the storyline away.)

My only complaint was that in places Jack’s speech patterns are unconvincing. The words seem to be jumbled for no good reason other than to convey his youth and confusion. They sit uncomfortably alongside his precocious facility with words elsewhere.

Otherwise I really enjoyed this book, Room, by Emma Donoghue. It’s unique, powerful and moving, and, despite its dark setting, it offers heartwarming homage to the triumph of the love between a quite remarkable mother and son. It fully deserved to be shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the Man Booker this year. And you know how rarely I sing the praises of these contenders!

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