The Locust and the Bird, By Hanan Al-Shaykh trans Roger Allen

Exile and displacement can provoke heroic stories of quests and adventures: tales fraught with nostalgia, narratives pierced by willed gaps. From contemporary diasporas there pours a stream of autobiographical writing, which we thirst for in order to invigorate our sense of our parched world. This tender memoir, The Locust and the Bird, taking off from the folklore motif of the attraction of opposites, courageously addresses both the themes of geographical separation and the jagged motifs of mother-daughter conflict. Finally, it draws them beautifully together.

Hanan Al-Shaykh's mother, Kamila, grew older in her home city of Beirut, where she had lived since growing up in southern Lebanon and seeing her six children scattered across the world. She increasingly wanted her life story to be recorded by her writer-daughter. For a time, Al-Shaykh resisted, tangled up in the pain of feeling abandoned as a small girl by her mother, confused by her own memories of adult deception. Finally, she consented to become her mother's amanuensis; necessarily, since Kamila could not read or write.

As oral memoirists do, Kamila had given away to others, all her life, brilliant fragments of jokes and conversation. Now she trusted her daughter to take her words and turn them, through art, into a record, a coherent whole.

In one way, Kamila's story could be read as an ordinarily tragic one. As a girl in a traditional patriarchal society, she takes a subservient place to boys and men, prey to their violence. Her father deserts his family, leaving them poverty-stricken, forced to scavenge for wild shoots. Transported to relatives in Beirut, Kamila is married off at 14 to an older man, raped on her wedding night, humiliated, beaten, denied an education.

No contraception: she bears her first child at 15. When she manages to divorce her husband, she is obliged to abandon her two daughters and becomes a social disgrace. After remarriage, having re-found her childhood sweetheart Muhummad, and getting worn out by caring for four more children, she aborts several pregnancies at home. Still young, she becomes a widow, loses her money to sharks and faces dire poverty all over again.

In another way, however, Kamila's story reveals her powers of resilience. She survives these hardships with intelligence, wit and imagination. She is an artist of life, fighting back with mockery and repartee. She sings. She makes up poems and chants them. Harsh facts become transformed as she translates her experience into daring episodes of transgression and romance.

As a girl in Beirut, she sneaks out to the cinema and becomes enchanted by romantic Egyptian films such as The White Rose, at first thinking these images and narratives share her reality. Becoming a secret cinema addict, she starts to frame her life in its terms. When she and Muhummad fall in love and begin their illicit affair, they do it frame by frame in the intense language of the screen: secret messages, hidden tokens, stolen kisses , heaving bosoms, weeping, rapturous recitals of poetry.

These devices allow Kamila to transcend the religious and moral rules that would condemn her as a loose, lewd woman, and inhabit a magical imaginary region of graceful permissiveness and chivalry. Kamila learns speeches in classical Arabic from film and radio, so that she can address her lover in an impassioned and literate way, even if she has to take on a male persona: "The day of reckoning is at hand... when the lover stands with open arms and says, 'Either my beloved will come at this moment, take my arm and hug me to her as I hug her, or else I will uproot her from my life'." At the same time, watching comic films inspires Kamila to stand up to her mean and abusive husband by playing practical jokes on him, enjoying her contrived domestic disasters.

I have never read a memoir which so clearly demonstrates art's power to help us survive. Kamila's tale, energetically translated by Roger Allen, gains extra poignancy from being dictated to her daughter; held inside her daughter's tale. The daughter, giving birth to her mother, learns to love her.

Michèle Roberts's memoir, 'Paper Houses', is published by Virago