Review published on June 26, 2017.
I should start by saying that this is a hard novel to review because it so deep, diverse and eye opening across the range of people, place, religion and history and thereby hard to do it justice in a few hundred words. A translation from the Arabic, it has won international prizes and it is easy to see why. Longer than most modern novels, I can only recommend that you read it anyway. As well as being an interesting tale, it explains so much that is happening in the wider world today.
The naked body of a young woman is found in the Lane of Many Heads, Mecca. So shameful that nobody will come forward to name or claim her. Experienced detective Nasser will investigate a series of young men who might be suspects. He has two key sources: the emails – maybe – of one missing woman and the memoirs of one young man. The local community will not talk about the discovery, only oblique hints might be given to Nasser in wider conversations. In the absence of community discussion the Lane of Many Heads – shortly to be obliterated – will act as a key narrator of events. But even if it seems so, this is not really a murder mystery – death is merely the doorway to a complex, strange, deep and entrancing tale of Arabic life both present and past.
You might be aware that one of the more important 12th century Arabic texts is the Necklace of the Dove by Ibn Hazm, himself an Andalusian Muslim. His novel explores the nature of love between men and women. So this modern novel is very much a recent exploration of his themes and more. I suspect that, brought up in Western Europe, probably 50% of what I was reading went over my head. This is a deep, many layered novel that cannot be read speedily. Around the simple theme of investigation – not just of the crime, but the nature of relationships between men and women in general, as well as between the various main characters – there is a rich tapestry of place, history, myth, religious belief, philosophy and literary tradition. Alem is a truly impressive writer as she carries these many themes, thoughts and then more, fitting them within the belief that there is no breakage between the modern and the past. This novel is homage to a passing Mecca too – as it should be said that beneath this tale is a piercing gaze into the changes that are occurring in the Holy City itself around the Great Mosque and the impact it is having on a diverse Islam.
I should say that I was reading this novel (slowly) against the background to the Manchester and London terrorist attacks. That made this brilliant exploration of the diversity and international aspects of Arabic and Islamic culture a very strong statement against, and challenge to, the narrow minded perversity of those acts that caused so much grief. It is a strong statement of all the positive aspects of Arabic and Islamic life. But throughout the novel Alem concentrates very much on the people, very sympathetic, even if they are not entirely impressive in themselves, displaying a deep humanity that is deeply compelling to read.
This novel should become a classic. For all intelligent readers I would say acquire it, read it and enjoy it.
Hilary White 5/4
The Dove’s Necklace by Raja Alem
Duckworth Overlook 9780715651759 pbk May 2017