Book - River Spirit

Out now from Saqi Books, Tony Cross read River Spirit by Leila Aboulela...

River Spirit is a historical fiction novel set in Sudan during the Mahdi’s uprising, which began on a small scale and ended up driving the Ottoman Empire out of Sudan, driving off the first attempt of the British to defeat him, and eventually after the Mahdi’s death finally falling to the British. The Mahdi is a messianic figure in Islamic belief, predicted to arrive near the world’s end.

It is though not the Mahdi’s story. He features in the book. It is story told through multiple voices with the two key ones – perhaps - being ZamZam (Akuany), a girl rescued from the destruction of her village – along with her brother, Bol – by the merchant Yaseen. Their complicated love story is the core of the book. After all ZamZam is, effectively, the titular character.

In total we hear from seven voices male and female, Sudanese and British. There are two British points of view, a Scottish painter, Robert and General Gordon himself. Both of them reflect different types of colonialism: Robert the exoticisation of African women’s bodies and their exploitation in art and General Gordon the Christian confidence and patronising attitude of the then modern colonial British general:

“You cannot help but love these simple people. There is no humbug in them, no pretence. They bring out the best in you. They trust you and you feel responsible. You will not let them down. You will not abandon them.”

The book describes the fall of Khartoum and Gordon’s death, which is described from the point of view of his killer who is called Musa in this book, which makes a change from the artful version of his just before the moment of his death painting by George William Joy. Leila Aboulela’s portrait of his descent into madness – or near madness -as the siege went on also is historically accurate and his journals are listed in the Acknowledgments.

Leila Aboulela has a great way of writing the different characters in a way that makes them all seem real. You find yourself invested in the characters and trying to understand them. Her depiction of the motivations and faith of Musa, for example, make you appreciate the Mahdi’s appeal to his followers. Everyone has an inner life and a history. You feel these people had lives before this book was written and afterwards. Except General Gordon, of course.

I’m loathe to talk about ‘strong female characters’ because it has become such a cliché but the women in this novel – particularly ZamZam, but not just her – go through a lot and it isn’t just the main characters. There a women characters, like Musa’s wife, who deal with the worst of things even though they do not appear for long.

The writing is excellent, but so too is the craft. To pull all these different points of view together and to keep it coherent is a fantastic achievement. You read a book by an author you’ve never read before and sometimes it makes you want to read everything they’ve written. This is one of those books.

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Image - Saqi Books

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