I enjoyed reading this beautifully constructed and lyrical novel by Leila Aboulela. It isn't often that I have read a fiction work that helps one understand the cultural difficulties encountered by a young Sudanese girl. Najwa is forced to move to London when her father's corruption is exposed in Khartoum where he was a government official. The story doesn't dwell on the differences between Najwa and the English, as much as it does between Najwa and other Sudanese ex pats she encounters in London.
In 1984 Najwa and her family lived in a large home with many servants; they had an opulent life in Khartoum. They also maintained an expensive apartment in London. Najwa didn't think much about her countrymen who lived in poverty. Her family were not religious, lived a western life-style, and traveled to Europe frequently. She took much for granted including her University education. She largely ignored the fundamentalist factions at school as she dressed in latest fashion and cultivated other wealthy friends. Najwa's brother, Omar, ran around with a fast crowd and early on was addicted to drugs.
At school, Najwa falls in love with Anwar, a radical socialist and student leader. She admired his cool demeanor and agreed with his criticism of religious traditions and clothing like the hijab. She even ignored his attacks on her father until a coup forces the family to flee when her father was jailed and executed.
At first things remained much the same for Najwa and her family in London. But, after her mother dies everything changes. Family money begins to run out, and Omar is arrested for stabbing a policeman during a drug raid. Before long there is another political upheaval in Sudan, and Anwar's faction is no longer in favor, and he washes up in London. Najwa and Anwar resume their relationship, and they quickly go through much of the money that Najwa has left. Alas, their love doesn't survive this downturn in fortune. Najwa is on the cusp of despair when she meets a woman who convinces her to begin attending the Mosque in Regent's Park. Najwa slowly rediscovers her Islamic religion, and as she finds support and friendship at the Mosque, she begins to find peace with her situation.
Years go by and we see that Najwa's life changes dramatically as she finds herself taking a job as a Nanny in a rich Muslum household. She has a complicated relationship with this secular family, and she is drawn to the much younger son who is, like Najwa, a devout Muslum.
As the story evolves, the reader, like Najwa, is not sure what her future holds. While she finds comfort in religion, Najwa begins to realize some of the binding and claustrophobic rules keep women down and curtails freedoms. The weakest part of the novel is the number of questions it leaves the reader with regarding Najwa's future and her relationships. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book and the way it caused me to see life through the eyes of a young woman as she struggles to understand her family, her background and her culture. It offers a good opportunity for a book group discussion.