A stunning coming-of-age tale, a review of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s “Gravel Heart” – Olukorede S Yishau
It spans decades.
The tales in this novel take us through Zanzibar of the 1970s, London of the 1980s and thereafter and then Zanzibar of the internet era.
It is in Zanzibar that Salim feels that his father does not want him. But it is in London, where he struggles through almost everything that he makes some sense of the drama of his family history. And latter-day Zanzibar is where he is eventually able to make a better sense of the whole drama of his life.
Those words seem to summarise Abdulrazak Gurnah’s novel, Gravel Heart. However, there is much more to summarising this stunning coming-of-age tale that can be titled ‘Another Lonely Londoner’ but this lonely Londoner is a victim of his family history that he struggles to fully comprehend.
At a noticeably early age, Salim feels all is not well with his family. He feels there is something wrong with the way his father relates with him.
One day his father leaves the house and at first his mother delivers a basket of food to him until she cedes this responsibility to Salim, a task he resents at first.
The father he delivers food to looks to him like a man out of his mind. He says little and when he engages him in what seems like extended conversation, he finds it difficult to understand the quotations he seems to have pulled out of from the pages of books long read.
No one is willing to give him the details of why his father chooses to live like a destitute. His mother hardly satisfies his curiosity because of her vague responses to his enquiries. Then one day he notices a bulge in his mother’s tummy. Time reveals she is pregnant, and time also shows she is carrying a girl-child. He knows his father is not responsible and with time, he finds out his sister’s father is a powerful married man whose sister later becomes his uncle’s wife. The arrival of his sister strains the relationship between him and his mother. He resents his sister’s father and starts destroying the baby’s toys but somehow, he finds that he still loves his sister.
One day he discovers a hole in the room he and his uncle, Amir, shared long after the uncle left for studies overseas. He believes he was using it to watch intimate moments between his parents. This hole gives him the edge to discover his uncle’s plot to have him attend university in London. When he gets to London, his uncle convinces him to study a business-related course because he believes it will guarantee his future. He struggles through the course and about two years into it, discovers he is wasting his time.
His uncle compels him to study hard and pass his exams but he fails woefully. That mars their relationship, and he offers to chart his own path and study literature instead. Thus a new, tough life begins for him.
Meanwhile, through his uncle’s wife he finds out some details about his family history which explains a few things that were not clear to him while in Zanzibar. He finds out, for instance, that his uncle had once been arrested and jailed at the behest of the man who is now his sister’s father. It took his mother’s intervention to get him released. He will find out more to make sense of the shame and exploitation that characterised his family history and how passion and politics reshape his family.
When Salim starts living on his own, he struggles through it all. Having a relationship becomes an arduous task for him, but with time he finds a way around it. Life, however, shows him its other side when the family of the Indian-cum-English lady he falls in love with forces her to end the relationship because he is a Nigger.
All through his struggles in London, his family history keeps tormenting him. He writes letters to his mother, some delivered, others just for him to vent and never passed on to his mother.
In his conversations with his mother, he finds out something is ailing her, but his mother keeps saying the medical checks are inconclusive. Fear mounts and he keeps living in fear and fear eventually catches up with him and leaves him a Hobbesian choice.
By the way, a Nigerian reader cannot but take special note of a scene between Salim and Alex where Nigerian politicians are described as having a huge appetite for stolen wealth as well as being the worst in the world when it comes to pilfering public money. They are accused of voting constituency allowance and others for themselves. Alex, who is Nigerian, caps it all by declaring: “Nobody in the world is as corrupt as us.”
This novel is a relatable story about exile, migration, loneliness, racism, family history and its baggage. It also touches on prejudices as shown in a Nigerian character’s views about other races. It also tells of love and its many complications and how a man can love so much and when he feels betrayed, he practically stops living and everyone thinks he has lost his mind. Its treatment of how people in exile always plan to return home but always keep postponing it is the reality of many abroad.
The novelist’s use of letters to tell a chunk of this story evokes emotions and Salim’s near unending mourning of the past helps drive the narration and captures the reader’s body, soul, and spirit.
His writing is glittery, elegant and deeply rewarding. It evokes power in graceful prose that screams class.
Narrated in first person by Salim and his father, this novel is a good model for what a coming-of-age novel should be: emotional, moving, and euphoric.
Gurnah, who is the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature—one of the few black persons to have won the award—is a writer to worship.
–Olukorede S. Yishau is the author of In the Name of Our Father and Vaults of Secrets