When Akuany and her brother Bol are orphaned in a village raid in South Sudan, they're taken in by a young merchant, Yaseen, who promises to care for them. It's a vow that tethers him to Akuany through their adulthood. As a revolutionary leader rises to power - the self-proclaimed Mahdi, prophesied redeemer of Islam - Sudan begins to slip from the grasp of Ottoman rule, and everyone must choose a side.
Dazzling ... There were moments when I wished to be closer to Akuany’s consciousness, to occupy a mind as supple, as wildly in love yet severely constrained, as hers ... But perhaps part of this novel’s ambition is to reject such expectations ... The pace is swift, galloping over momentous events, stating profound changes with unsettling directness. The text is ruthless when rendering moments of grief ... The stark language leaves the reader to decide how to be affected. Will we pause? Will we turn our gaze? ... But the novel is compassionate, too. It understands why followers follow, why enemies charge, why the tormented betray.
... explores themes of faith and conquest without compromising on rich characterization or compelling plot development. [Aboulela] also centralizes women and their experiences in a larger sociopolitical context that is most often viewed in terms of men’s lives ... Aboulela reveals the thin lines that can demarcate religious zeal and patriotic fervor, social crusade and personal recklessness, as she creates a finely wrought and compellingly in-depth drama about a land and its people.
While Aboulela’s handling of Zamzam and Yaseen’s relationship is vivid, even captivating, she doesn’t manage the novel’s plot with quite the same verve. The pacing often feels off. Tragic or violent events take place with little warning or fanfare, and a side story about a Scottish painter isn’t fully integrated into the rest of the book. Still, there is a great deal to admire in Aboulela’s work.