River Spirit

Grove. Mar. 2023. 400p. ISBN 9780802160669. $27.99. F
Set during Sudan’s Mahdist period of the 1880s, this sweeping historical novel centers on a young village girl called Akuany (later Zamzam) and Yaseen, a traveling merchant who takes Akuany and her brother under his protection after their village is raided. Leaving the children with his sister’s family, Yaseen attends university and begins a career. While awaiting his return, Akuany becomes enslaved, while Yaseen takes a stand against the Mahdi, a self-proclaimed “redeemer of Islam” who is leading a rebellion against the waning Ottoman Empire and eventually the British Empire. Along with Zamzam and Yaseen, we get points of view from diverse characters, including Musa, a true believer in the Mahdi; Yaseen’s mother, Fatimah; and Robert, a Scottish artist working for the British shipping interests.
VERDICT Historical novels are often most successful when they focus on ordinary people experiencing extraordinary times, and that is the case with Aboulela’s (The Kindness of Enemies) latest. Zamzam and Yaseen’s love story is moving and gripping, sweeping the reader along hoping that they will end up together against the odds. The multiple perspectives also serve a useful purpose for readers who may know next to nothing about the complex historical events described. Highly recommended.
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