Book Review: Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah

Emotional story of exile, migration and betrayal

GravelHeartAbout the Book

Publisher’s description: Moving from revolutionary Zanzibar in the 1960s to restless London in the 1990s, Gravel Heart is a powerful story of exile, migration and betrayal, from the Booker Prize-shortlisted author of Paradise.

Salim has always believed that his father does not want him. Living with his parents and his adored Uncle Amir in a house full of secrets, he is a bookish child, a dreamer haunted by night terrors.  It is the 1970s and Zanzibar is changing. Tourists arrive, the island’s white sands obscuring the memory of recent conflict: longed-for independence from British colonialism swiftly followed by bloody revolution. When his father moves out, retreating into dishevelled introspection, Salim is confused and ashamed. His mother explains neither this nor her absences with a strange man; silence is layered on silence.

When glamorous Uncle Amir, now a senior diplomat, offers Salim an escape, the lonely teenager travels to London for college. But nothing has prepared him for the biting cold and seething crowds of this hostile city. Struggling to find a foothold, and to understand the darkness at the heart of his family, Salim must face devastating truths about himself and those closest to him – and about love, sex and power.

Book Facts

  • Format: Hardcover
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
  • No. of pages:
  • Publication date:
  • Genre:

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My Review (4 out of 5)

I was first introduced to the work of Abdulrazak Gurnah whilst studying for my MA in English with The Open University. Paradise was one of the set books and I really enjoyed it (despite having to write an assignment about it). So I was keen to read Gravel Heart when I saw the title on NetGalley.

Gurnah returns to some familiar themes: colonialism (especially British), the importance of stories (telling, retelling and withholding), displacement, the conflict between modernity and tradition and the notion that history is (re)written by the victor.

In Part 1, Gurnah skilfully puts the reader inside the mind of a young boy, Salim, who picks up nuggets of information about his family history but does not fully understand them and who observes things but does not understand precisely what he is seeing or the true nature of the relationship of the people involved.

‘It had taken me a long time to add things up because I was an inept and unworldly child with eyes only for books. Nobody taught me to see the vileness of things and I saw like an idiot, understanding nothing.’

This includes the reason for his father’s separation from his mother and why his father lives alone seemingly overwhelmed by despondency. The full picture will only be revealed at the end of the novel.

Part 2 covers Salim’s experience of living in England and his persistent feeling of being on the edge, of being an outsider and being in unfamiliar surroundings: ‘I tried but could not join in the city’s human carnival.’ Even the supermarket shelves are a source of strange, new things.

‘Everything was new and sometimes surprising…What a good idea, I would think, as I learnt the use of this or that.’

In England, Salim begins to see the true nature of Uncle Amir whose jokes and smiles, it becomes apparent, mask less attractive character traits.

In the final part, Salim at long last learns what happened between his father and mother in a tale told by his father over a number of nights, in the manner of The Arabian Nights.

As with Paradise, in Gravel Heart, the reader is transported to another culture and fascinating insights into life in Zanzibar. However, I found it difficult at times to understand fully Salim’s actions – or rather his lack of action – and his diffidence.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Bloomsbury, in return for an honest review.

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In three words: Lyrical, reflective, emotional

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AbdulrazakGurnahAbout the Author

Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in 1948 in Zanzibar and lives in England, where he teaches at the University of Kent. He is the author of seven novels, which include Paradise, shortlisted for both the Booker and the Whitbread Prizes, By The Sea, longlisted for the Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and Desertion, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize.

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