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Inside, Outside

A friend with taste gave me Monica Ali’s best-selling Brick Lane, a rich saga, by way of Dickens and Naipaul, of a rural Bangladeshi woman who’s brought to London for an arranged marriage and ends up realigning her notions about belonging and what it means to be a wife, mother and sinner. Ali’s terrific novel set me off on a summer of reading Muslim immigrant chick-lit, a blossoming new subgenre whose latest offering is Minaret, a second novel by Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela, who now lives in Scotland. Though not in the same league as the artful Brick Lane, the brisk sales of which surely eased its path to publication, Minaret spins an absorbing tale of secular fall in Khartoum and spiritual rise in London. When her father, a sleek functionary in the office of the Sudanese president, vanishes following a left-wing coup, party girl Najwa, whose head is filled with important thoughts of Michael Jackson and miniskirts, flees with her mother and profligate twin brother to their London flat. With the family fortunes in free fall, Najwa finds herself alone and compelled to take a job as maid to a wealthy Egyptian Muslim family; she begins attending a mosque where the women provide her with community and a sense of spiritual identity she’s never allowed herself to experience before. Though her writing is simple, even bald, Aboulela has vivid descriptive powers. Her evocation of Khartoum’s semi-secular high life is adroitly counterpointed to the dreary, unwelcoming London that presents itself to so many immigrants, and again to the female vitality that throbs inside the mosque, where, in one joyous scene, the women remove their hijabs and, dressed to the hilt in lipstick and heels, celebrate the end of Ramadan. Minaret is shot through with a sense of sin that’s strikingly old-fashioned from both a literary and religious standpoint, and though the secular feminist in me choked on Najwa’s apparent passivity, in the right mood there’s something profoundly restful and seductive about the idea of a retreat from the urban fray into a calm, supportive micro-world, a retreat not into submissiveness, but into submission to an inner higher authority. Still, in the wake of the London bombings there’s also something scary about Najwa’s detachment from the English world outside her immediate orbit. Not to mention a shattering post-hoc irony in the following observation about her adopted city: “I walked down Gloucester Road and thought that whatever happened to me, whatever happens to the world, London remains the same, constant; continuous underground trains, the newsagents selling Cadbury’s chocolates . . . For the first time in my life I disliked London and envied the English, so unperturbed and grounded, never displaced, never confused.” MINARET | By LEILA ABOULELA | Black Cat/Grove/Atlantic | 276 pages | $13 paperback


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