Contemporary rural Scotland in the grip of a cold winter, childhood memories of Sudan and manoeuvres in the wild Caucasus mountains during the Crimean War may seem unlikely settings to be drawn together in a cohesive, fictional narrative, yet Leila Aboulela does so with gentle self-evidence and clarity.
The reader flicks back and forth through time, gleaning pleasure and enlightenment through each of the doorways as they go. The definition of jihad; the nature of radicalisation; what it means to be wrongly accused and tainted by suspicion are all touched on.
Natasha Wilson knows all about the difficulty of belonging. Born to a Russian mother and a Sudanese father, moving to Scotland, eagerly accepting her stepfather's surname – her own, "Hussein", fraught with association – she has worked hard to fit in. But even with her academic achievements as a university lecturer, her place in the world feels uncertain.
She has formed a hard shell, "keeping back the shards and useless memories", alarmed by the nostalgia evoked by tea that "smelled of cinnamon". There is one student whose intellectual rigour and original thinking she prizes, Oz (Osama) Raja. It transpires that he is a descendent of Imam Shamil, "the lion of Dagestan", the 19th-century warrior chief who fought to protect his people and their traditions against the invading forces of Tsarist Russia, a figure Natasha is currently researching. She is welcomed into Raja's family, becoming friends with mother and son. She senses life rekindling, serenity returning, in the presence of Shamil's sword that hangs on their living-room wall.
A turbulent turn of events in Oz and Natasha's lives is interwoven with a second narrative, that of 1850s Dagestan, Georgia and Russia. Seen primarily from the viewpoints of Shamil – depicted with increasing empathy – and Princess Anna of Georgia, kidnapped by Shamil's men as a bargaining chip to secure the return of his own son, Jamaledin, who was captured when a boy.
Jamaledin's tales from the Tsarist court of St Petersburg, where he is a favourite, contrast with the austere mountain life. These sections allow Aboulela to expand her lyrical voice.The passages are arresting in their descriptiveness, with beautiful pockets of calm in which the spiritual journey, as advocated by Shamil's Sufi teacher, is explored. This is a subject Aboulela has focused on in earlier novels.
This aspect of Islam, at odds with the rich ease of the life of Russian aristocracy, with its parables and anecdotes of respectful wisdom, is enthralling.
The importance of the spiritual journey of each lifetime is emphasised, a subject treated by Tolstoy in his last novel, itself a moving final connection between Natasha and her Sudanese father.
A reluctance to acknowledge a possible way forward, whether for a warrior chief in 1850s Dagestan, or a young woman adrift in present-day Aberdeen, may exist in a willingness to "delve in the hidden truth behind the disguise", where peace can be achieved, lies at the heart of this novel about identity, fitting in, and finding one's place in the world.