Novel about Algerian women navigating life in a newly liberated nation
Content warning: suicide, family violence, sexual harassment, gender inequality, miscarriage, mental illness
I picked up this book at a Lifeline Book Fair some time back. I always like to browse the world literature section because it’s an ongoing goal of mine to read books by authors all around the world. This is the first book I’ve read by an Algerian author. As I was choosing books from my shelf last year for my Short Stack Reading Challenge, this one caught my eye and into the pile it went.
“Desperate Spring” by Fettouma Touati and translated by Ros Schwartz is about a number of Algerian women from different generations all connected by family and marriage. In the wake of the Algerian war of liberation, the traumas of past conflict and the tensions of the present create a challenging time for young women who must navigate traditional social values and their ambitions for education and independence. Faced with the choice between pursuing education and the cost of social acceptance, or accepting a marriage proposal and sacrificing independence and in many cases physical safety, the story follows the lives of these young women and how gender inequality undermines all their decisions.
This was a fascinating and heart-breaking book about a difficult era. I really liked Touati’s use of different sisters and cousins to explore and compare the consequences of their choices. When the opportunity arises for Fatiha to pursue further education, she eagerly seizes it, ignoring the pushback from her family in an attempt to distance herself from the horror inflicted by her traumatised father. However, she finds herself adrift and alone in a society not yet ready for independent women and unable to escape the pain of her past. Her cousin Yasmina also doggedly pursues her dreams of becoming a doctor, but her more stable upbringing and concession to tradition creates space for a little more happiness than her cousin. Yasmin’s sister Fatma, after completing some education, decides to marry rather than continuing her studies but her seemingly gentle young husband proves to be as entitled and violent as many other young men. Their cousin Malika, who grew up in Europe with more social freedom but with an extremely controlling mother, struggles to find her place in the world but is bolstered by the connection she makes with her cousins back in Algeria.
An intricate and unflinching book, and although in many ways it filled me with sadness and empathy for these women in impossible situations, this was an excellent introduction to Algerian literature.
I first read a book by this author five years ago and I have been so eager to read more of her work ever since. I actually presented on this book for the Asia Bookroom‘s book club, so when I saw this book listed on this year’s reading list, I put it directly in my diary and made sure I was there. It’s a really great book club full of really knowledgeable, thoughtful people and as always I had a wonderful time and learned a lot.
“The White Book” by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith almost defies being placed in a genre but I think perhaps it falls somewhere between creative non-fiction, fictionalised autobiography and experimental writing. Broken into micro-essays each centred on a different white thing, the book reflects on how trauma echoes through a city destroyed by war decades on and how family trauma similarly echoes across a lifetime.
This is an excellent book that is utterly mesmerising. The structure forces you as a reader to take your time and savour each part but it is at the same time completely readable. Kan is a writer of exceptional talent and not a single word in this book is superfluous. Smith, who is also the founder of Tilted Axis Press, should also be commended for her translation. Some of these micro-chapters are absolutely haunting and although this book is only of novella length, there was no shortage of themes to discuss during the book club. One of the most poignant parts for me was the narrator’s reflection that after the loss of her childhood dog, she was so afraid of getting close to another dog and risking that grief again that she wouldn’t even pat one. Similarly, the reverberated pain of the narrator’s older sister dying shortly after birth affects her own willingness to have children. The other harrowing thoughts that occupy the narrator’s mind include the guilt of having lived, and whether, had her sister survived, she would have been born at all. Although never mentioned by name, Warsaw in winter provides a bleak backdrop but also a blank canvas against which the narrator meditates on the colour white and all the things in her life it symbolises. The book ends with multiple white pages, and I thought that was an excellent touch.
I think the only thing that didn’t quite work with this book was, actually, not the writing. There are black and white photographs interspersed throughout the book of the author interacting with white objects. I didn’t mind the photography per se, but I didn’t feel like the design within the book itself worked well. For example, one image was spread across two pages but the book binding didn’t allow for the whole image to be seen which made it lose a lot of impact.
However, this is without a doubt a beautiful book at the cutting edge of literature and that cuts right to the heart of our humanity.