Sorry for the lateness in posting this – I have so much work to do for uni! But never fear, exams are over by the end of next week, and I can return to the wonderful world of not thinking. Since this book was lying around my room, taunting me to stop studying and get into it, I gave in. I’m really a very weak person…
As in his first novel, The Yacoubian Building, al Aswany gives us a large cast of characters, whose stories intertwine around the Medical Department of the University of Illinois. This is a story of the Egyptian experience in America, and so we have Egyptian students coming to study for their medical degrees, including Shaymaa, a veiled woman, who has trouble fitting into American society. There’s her neighbour, Tariq. There’s Danana, the leader of the Egyptian students, but a thoroughly unlikeable man with a wife wanting to escape. Then there’s the huge number of professors who turn out to have quite interesting lives, too.
I do love al Aswany’s ability to keep a hold on his giant cast of characters, without ever making us feel like the characters are not getting enough screen time. His structure is impeccable and the occassional meeting between them makes the novel gel together far more than it should. While there have been criticisms of his style as being too close to that of soap operas, I think this style actually works in his favour here. Yes, it is a little like a soap opera, but that is not an intrinsically bad thing.
Al Aswany uses his novel as a social commentary, and there are a lot of things he wants to talk about here. Perhaps the most important is religion, and the way Islam affects the people of Egypt, and whether it is actually a good thing for them. There is brief mention of the Copts – the Christians in Egypt, and when one of the Egyptian students (a Muslim) falls in love with a Jewish American woman, there are some nice moments, though the relationship is doomed, and there does seem to be some kind of implication that a Muslim and a Jew could never really fall in love because of the history. For all of these characters, religion is their downfall – many of them are hypocritical about their faith, and in the end, these people’s lives are deeply affected, and not usually in a good way. Tied into this, then, is the question of Egypt’s political system – there’s a lot of criticism of the current Egyptian president, and the way he runs the country. Many of the students are too scared to even think about questioning the state, and they live in fear of their leader, Danana.
Structurally, and tonally, this book is a lot like The Yacoubian Building. There are a whole load of characters tenuously connected, providing a vast tapestry on which al Aswany can make his points. Alas, though, I think this works better in The Yacoubian Building. Chicago feels like a retread, with al Aswany trying to recreate the magic of quirky characters in serious situations, but the characters ultimately begin to blend into one another, and their ventures were done better in the first go.