The Kindness of Enemies, by Leila Aboulela - book review: A voyage of self-discovery

W&N - £14.99

Shirley Whiteside
Sunday 16 August 2015 18:48

Natasha, a lecturer at a Scottish university, lives her life in a kind of limbo. The daughter of a Sudanese father and Russian mother, she feels she doesn’t belong anywhere. She is drawn to Oz, one of her more gifted students, who introduces her to Malak, his mother. Natasha is researching Imam Shamil, a 19th-century warrior leader who fought against the Russian annexation of the Caucasus, and Malak has a sword that is said to have belonged to him. Snowed in during her visit to Malak and forced to spend the night, Natasha witnesses the early morning arrest of Oz by anti-terrorist police and finds herself under suspicion.

Aboulela splits the narrative between Natasha’s troubles in 2010 Scotland and Shamil’s guerrilla war against the Russians in the mid-19th century. Shamil, known as the Lion of Dagestan, emerges as an inspirational leader who risks everything to keep his people free. His young son, Jamaleldin, is taken hostage by the Russians and Shamil spends years trying to free him. Meanwhile, Jamaleldin becomes a favourite of the Tsar and grows up to become a Russian soldier. Aboulela skilfully draws out the parallels between Jamaleldin and Natasha, each desperate to assimilate into a new life but never able to lose the feeling of being an outsider.

Aboulela’s graceful writing style makes for a pleasurable read. Her descriptive powers come to the fore when writing about Shamil’s life. She brings the landscape of the Caucasus to life with vivid passages about the harsh beauty of Shamil’s mountainous home. The hunger and privations of his people are artfully compared to the luxury and waste of their Russian foes, especially when Shamil kidnaps Anna, a Georgian Princess, whom he wishes to exchange for his son, Jamaleldin. Anna, a former lady-in-waiting to the Tsarina, is shocked by the poverty but comes to respect Shamil as a man of integrity.

Aboulela’s greatest strength lies in the complex portrayals of her protagonists. There are no flimsy characters as each emerges with all the compassion and contradictions inherent in humans. Shamil is a ruthless military leader who is deeply religious and gentle with women and children; Anna is a spoiled princess who finds a well of courage she never knew she possessed; and Natasha learns to come to terms with her mixed heritage and find peace.

The book is a tender evocation of the spiritual journeys of her characters.

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