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The ties that bind

SANDPIPER by Ahdaf Soueif, Bloomsbury pounds 14.99
JUST AS the sandpiper of Elizabeth Bishop's poem, Soueif's epigraph, is "focused ... obsessed" with picking through the "millions of grains ... black, white, tan and grey", so the beached narrator of the title story picks over and over at her unsatisfactory life, "looking for something, something, something". The narrator's daughter is "my treasure, my trap"; for her she will stay in a stalled marriage, and when she sees in her estranged husband "a man I could yet fall in love with ... I turn away".

The failure of Muslim marriage is one of Soueif's central themes in this collection of short stories, but her touch is delicate, her perspective complex. The heroines seem to be adrift between two worlds, coldly civilised London counterpointed by warm, chaotic north Africa. Asya, never able to bring a child to term, suddenly thinks of Anne Boleyn: "She hath miscarried of her saviour." The web of the Islamic family is shown to be as sustaining as it is stifling; particularly with regard to relationships between women. It is not until we meet the deeply religious Salah, in "The Water Heater", that Soueif is specific about the threat rigid Islam can pose to autonomous womanhood, but he is a one-off, a joke in the eyes of other men. Punctilious about prayers and cleanliness, Salah averts his eyes from women in the streets, only to find that his blameless young sister, Faten, is stirring his lustful thoughts.

Asya, who features in two of the stories, is an attractive character, worthy of further fictional investigation. In the book's most lopsided story, Asya's perspective on her husband's new lover, revealed in letters, is set against that of the American Mandy, writing blindly and complacently in her diary. As an act of literary ventriloquism, it doesn't quite succeed.

The pay-off, when there is one, is conventional: in "Satan", Asya determines to rescue a kitten from her sadistic brother-in-law: "It simply isn't right," the story concludes. In "Chez Milou", romantic history comes nearly full circle. Plot isn't the point: "Satan" also deftly sketches the tug and constraint of the extended Muslim family, as Asya is patronised by her fertile sister-in-law and forced to make excuses for her own unfaithful husband. "Chez Milou" reaches back decades for a tale of first and only love in old Alexandria, between a cold, pale boy and a flame-haired girl: irreconcilably opposed, like most of the men and women in this haunting collection. Of the seven, only one story is a misfire; the other six are exquisite.