When he was just a boy, Ilyas was stolen from his parents on the coast of east Africa by German colonial troops. After years away, fighting against his own people, he returns home to find his parents gone and his sister Afiya abandoned into de facto slavery. From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
... superb ... In this story as in history, the German empire is a living, breathing organism with a desire to grow and reproduce and, if threatened, fight for its survival at all costs. Gurnah depicts the white man’s racism plainly ... Gurnah reveals the ensuing sequence of events slowly and expertly, his tone abounding in empathy and devoid of judgment, even as the ramifications of Ilyas’s choice grow in magnitude over the years and decades ... may be an exploration of imperialism and war and the minor, untold stories that get lost in the major, oft-repeated ones, but it is equally a love story. After finding themselves taken in by Khalifa and his wife, Asha, Afiya and Hamza — two young people who have seen the extent of human wickedness, Afiya at the hands of her fellow Africans and Hamza at the hands of Europeans — choose to surrender themselves to each other so that they might build something new and beautiful out of the rubble ... Gurnah beautifully renders their moments of delight despite the brutal reality around them ... Born in the Tanzanian archipelago of Zanzibar, Gurnah moved to England during the Zanzibar revolution at 18, and lives there today. It is evident from this novel that he still carries his homeland in his heart; Afterlives is a celebration of a place and time when people held onto their own ways, and basked in ordinary joys even as outside forces conspired to take them away. Even in times of war, he shows, single women still hope for ideal husbands, businessmen seek profit, spouses quarrel, men gather for evening gossip, loved ones frequent one another’s houses to care for the sick, toast marriages, observe holidays ... [Gurnah] is a novelist nonpareil, a master of the art form who understands human failings in conflicts both political and intimate — and how these shortcomings create afflictions from which nations and individuals continue to suffer, needlessly, generation after generation.
Honesty is perhaps the virtue that this novel, in its undemonstrative way, most extols ... Goodness is difficult to depict without becoming mawkish, but Mr. Gurnah does it superbly. This is owed, I think, to the masterly restraint of his storytelling, which patiently develops its characters and their fortunes without authorial interjections or overt literary effects. One can take away lessons and meanings from this novel, yet such things are perhaps less significant than the sheer seeming realness of the characters, whose presences Mr. Gurnah has faithfully crafted into existence, with all of their dreaming, their sorrow and their resilience.
... the author’s classic strengths by no means render him stodgy, no more than they do V.S. Naipaul, perhaps the most useful comparison. Gurnah has a sense of humor, certainly ... Intimacy rules ... I’d be badly off-base to suggest Afterlives is all about illicit love, or a war novel either. Neither can encompass a narrative like this. Gurnah settles in for long stretches with each of his major characters, all African but out of very different backgrounds, while also covering more than half a century of vast international changes. He brings off something improbably capacious, for a novel of less than 300 pages, and once in a long while this set me fretting about his need to summarize. Every once in a long while, the author sounded more like an encyclopedist than a storyteller ... finds a more intimate gear, prowling the kitchen or bedroom.