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:

Purchase links*

*link is provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

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

Try something similar…Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

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.

My Week in Books

calendarNew arrivals

Another week of (relative) self-restraint…

TheSixthManThe Sixth Man by Rupert Colley (ebook, review copy courtesy of the author)

Sometimes we all make the wrong choice. 1943 Nazi-occupied France. Six Frenchmen are in a Nazi prison: a doctor, a postman, a policeman, a soldier, a teacher and a priest. After six months of prison, they are a desperate looking set of men. But, despite their circumstances, they are happy – for tonight is their last night of incarceration. Tomorrow, they will be free men. But then – there’s a change of plan. The French resistance have blown up a German train. Five German soldiers lie dead. Tomorrow, five of the six prisoners will be executed in reprisal. They have until dawn to decide which one of them should be allowed to live. Six happy men are now six desperate frightened souls, victims of the Nazi’s arbitrary justice. The doctor, the postman, the policeman, the soldier, the teacher and the priest. Only one of them will live to see another day. Who will be The Sixth Man? The Sixth Man is a novel about the difficult choices we have to make and living with the consequences.

TheSacrificeThe Sacrifice by Indrajit Garai (ebook, review copy courtesy of the author)

In this collection, meet: Guillaume, who gives up everything to protect his child; young Matthew, who stakes his life to save his home; and François, who makes the biggest sacrifice to rescue his grandson.

MoreThanASoldierMore Than A Soldier by D. M. Annechino (ebook, review copy courtesy of the author)

Feeling a patriotic duty to defend his country after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, seventeen year old, Angelo J. DiMarco, enlists in the U.S. Army. Severely short of frontline fighters, the Army rushes Angelo through Ranger training and sends him to Italy as part of the 1st Ranger Battalion. Their objective: stop the German invasion. Fighting on the front lines in Italy, the German’s teach Angelo a sobering lesson on life when they capture him during the bloody battle of Cisterna. The poor living conditions and ill-treatment in the German prison camps quickly convince Angelo he has to find a way out. Against insurmountable odds, Angelo miraculously escapes in a way that stretches the imagination. He survives behind enemy lines for over five months, hiding from the Germans and trying to outmanoeuvre them. He begs for food, sleeps in barns and suffers from many ailments, including dehydration, malnutrition, malaria and exposure to the elements.

AReluctantWarriorA Reluctant Warrior by Kelly Brooke Nicholls (ebook, review copy courtesy of the author)

When Luzma’s brother, Jair, unwittingly uncovers the plan by Colombia’s most notorious drug cartel to smuggle an unprecedented cocaine shipment into the US, it puts their family in grave danger. Jair’s kidnapping by the cartel forces Luzma to go face to face with vicious paramilitary leader, El Cubano, and General Ordonez, ruthless head of the military – men who will stop at nothing to protect their empires. But for Luzma, nothing is more important than saving her family – not even her own life.

ATalentForMurderA Talent for Murder by Andrew Wilson (ebook, 99p)

Agatha Christie, in London to visit her literary agent, boards a train, preoccupied and flustered in the knowledge that her husband Archie is having an affair. She feels a light touch on her back, causing her to lose her balance, then a sense of someone pulling her to safety from the rush of the incoming train. So begins a terrifying sequence of events. Her rescuer is no guardian angel; rather, he is a blackmailer of the most insidious, manipulative kind. Agatha must use every ounce of her cleverness and resourcefulness to thwart an adversary determined to exploit her genius for murder to kill on his behalf.

DesperationRoadDesperation Road by Michael Farris Smith(ebook, 99p)

For eleven years the clock has been ticking for Russell Gaines as he sat in Parchman penitentiary in the Mississippi Delta. His time now up, and believing his debt paid, he returns home only to discover that revenge lives and breathes all around. On the day of his release, a woman named Maben and her young daughter trudge along the side of the interstate under the punishing summer sun. Desperate and exhausted, the pair spend their last dollar on a motel room for the night, a night that ends with Maben running through the darkness holding a pistol, and a dead deputy sprawled across the road in the glow of his own headlights. With dawn, destinies collide, and Russell is forced to decide whose life he will save – his own or that of the woman and child?

PachinkoPachinko by Min Jin Lee (ebook, 99p)

Profoundly moving and gracefully told, PACHINKO follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them. Betrayed by her wealthy lover, Sunja finds unexpected salvation when a young tubercular minister offers to marry her and bring her to Japan to start a new life.  So begins a sweeping saga of exceptional people in exile from a homeland they never knew and caught in the indifferent arc of history. In Japan, Sunja’s family members endure harsh discrimination, catastrophes, and poverty, yet they also encounter great joy as they pursue their passions and rise to meet the challenges this new home presents. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, they are bound together by deep roots as their family faces enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.

On What Cathy Read Next last week

Book Reviews

On Tuesday, as part of the Blog Tour, I published my review of Across Great Divides by Monique Roy and today’s review was of an entertaining mystery thriller, Exodus ’95 by Kfir Luzzatto.

Other posts

On Monday, I published a Q&A with Diney Costeloe, author of The Married Girls and Wednesday saw a guest post ‘Secrets of Romney Marsh’ from A.J. MacKenzie, author of The Body in the Ice. On Thursday, I welcomed to my blog Jeannie Zokan for a guest post about the real-life locations used in her novel, The Existence of Pity. Saturday saw another Q&A, this time with Lesley Thomson, author of The Dog Walker, the fifth book in her The Detective’s Daughter series. Finally, today, a more light-hearted post: 10 (More) Tips to Beat Reviewer’s Block.

Challenge updates

  • Goodreads 2017 Reading Challenge – 49 out of 78 books read (2 more than last week)
  • Classics Club – 2 out of 50 books reviewed (same as last week)
  • NetGalley and Edelweiss Reading Challenge 2017 – 24 ARCs reviewed out of 25 (same as last week)
  • From Page to Screen – 6 book/film comparisons completed (same as last week)
  • NEW The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction Shortlist 2017 – 2 out of 7 read

On What Cathy Read Next this week

Currently reading

Planned posts

  • Excerpt/Q&A: The Dream Shelf by Jeff Russell
  • Review: Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King
  • Review: The Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah
  • Blog Tour/Q&A: The Summer House Party by Caro Fraser
  • Book Blitz: Debutante by Marie Silk

Reviews to be added to NetGalley

  • The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet


How was your Week in Books?  Literary sensation or remainder pile?

10 (More) Tip to Beat Reviewer’s Block

ReviewersBlockI had some great feedback on my original post, so here are 10 more ideas for when the reviewing muse proves elusive:

Tip 11 – Always have something at hand to jot down thoughts when inspiration strikes (notepad and pen by the bed/in the kitchen, post-it notes, notepad app on your phone for when you’re out) whatever works for you.

Tip 12 – Don’t try to rely on your memory (see above). Trust me, that great idea will have disappeared by the time you sit down to write your review.

Tip 13 – How about the carrot approach? Promise yourself a treat once you’ve written the review – cream cake, biscuit, glass of wine, chocolate or whatever’s your thing!

Tip 14 – Still no joy? Then it’s time for the stick. Not only can’t you buy, you can’t even pick up a book until you’ve completed that darn review. There, that should sort it.

Tip 15 – Time to man (or woman) up. Look, it’s only a few hundred words you need to write, the author produced tens of thousands. What are you complaining about?

Tip 16 – Think about the poor author who so depends on your review. Don’t you feel guilty now?

Tip 17 – Re-read some of your own reviews of other books. Try to get back into the frame of mind that produced those works of genius.

Tip 18 – Oh, just write “It’s a good read”. (This one is my husband’s suggestion.)

Tip 19 – Try the psychological approach. Repeat after me: “I only need to write 300 words, I can do that”; “I’m really good at writing reviews”; “I am the King/Queen of Reviews, I rock”….

Tip 20 – Find a really good review of the book by someone else and copy and paste it.  Look, I’m joking, people!

Book Review: Exodus ’95 by Kfir Luzzatto

Entertaining, fast-paced mystery/thriller 

Exodus95About the Book

Publisher’s description: Claire, a young graphic designer, learns a secret that her dying New York neighbour has kept for twenty years: the whereabouts of Moses’ Biblical staff. Claire needs the help of an Israeli engineer and the money of a Russian oligarch to recover the staff before her body betrays her. But first she needs to stay alive in a race with fanatics, who will do anything to keep the staff from coming to light.

Then the LORD said to Moses: Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground.

Book Facts

  • Format: ebook
  • Publisher: Pine Ten
  • No. of pages: 309
  • Publication date: 1st May 2017
  • Genre: Thriller, Mystery

Find Exodus ’95 on Goodreads

To pre-order/purchase Exodus ’95 from click here (link provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme)

My Review (3.5 out of 5)

This was an entertaining read that I would categorise as “train, plane or automobile” – in other words, it would keep you nicely entertained on a long journey without being at all taxing. I guess I would describe it as Raiders of the Lost Ark meets The Da Vinci Code meets The Manchurian Candidate!

Claire and Dan, an Israeli engineer who unknown to him has information about the whereabouts of the fabled Moses staff, team up to retrieve it for a Russian oligarch who has his own nefarious past. That would be too easy, so a rival Egyptian is also after the staff.   The author keeps the action flowing with plenty of twists and turns, cross and double cross and a “Whoa, I wasn’t expecting that” moment about a third of the way in which takes the story in a whole new direction.

Okay, so elements of the story are pretty far-fetched – at least, I hope they are, otherwise recent events between the United States and Russia take on whole new possibilities! – but it’s all competently done and keeps you wanting to read on to the end.

I’d like to thank the author for providing an advance reader copy in return for an honest review.

In three words: Entertaining, fast-moving, action

Try something similar…Sanctus by Simon Toyne

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KfirLuzzattoAbout the Author

Kfir Luzzatto is the author of seven novels, several short stories and two non-fiction books. Kfir was born and raised in Italy, and moved to Israel as a teenager. He acquired the love for the English language from his father, a former U.S. soldier, a voracious reader, and a prolific writer. Kfir has a PhD in chemical engineering and works as a patent attorney. He lives in Omer, Israel, with his full-time partner, Esther, their four children, Michal, Lilach, Tamar, and Yonatan, and the dog Elvis. . He is an HWA (Horror Writers Association) and ITW (International Thriller Writers) member.

Connect with Kfir

Blog Tour/Interview: The Dog Walker (The Detective’s Daughter #5) by Lesley Thomson

I’m delighted to host today’s stop on the blog tour for The Dog Walker by Lesley Thomson, the fifth instalment in the bestselling The Detective’s Daughter series. Lesley has kindly agreed to answer some questions about the book, its inspiration and her approach to writing.

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TheDogWalkerCoverAbout the Book

A haunted house, a broken family and a body that has never been found. Stella and Jack must reawaken the secrets of the past in order to solve the mysteries of the present.

January, 1987. In the depths of winter, only joggers and dog walkers brave the Thames towpath after dark. Helen Honeysett, a young newlywed, sets off for an evening run from her riverside cottage. Only her dog returns. Twenty-nine years later, her husband has asked Stella Darnell, a private detective, and her sidekick Jack Harmon, to find out what happened all those years ago. But when the five households on that desolate stretch of towpath refuse to give up their secrets, Stella and Jack find themselves hunting a killer whose trail has long gone cold.

TheDogWalkerBook Facts

  • Format: Hardcover
  • Publisher: Head of Zeus
  • No. of pages: 400
  • Publication date: 6th April 2017
  • Genre: Crime

To purchase The Dog Walker from, click here (link provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme)


Q&A: Lesley Thomson, author of The Dog Walker

Without giving too much away, can you tell me a bit about The Dog Walker?

It’s a story of a place as much as of people. Five cottages near a dark lonely towpath beside the River Thames. The only people who go there at night are dog walkers and joggers. In 1987 a woman disappears and is presumed murdered. The crime is never solved. 29 years on the woman’s husband asks Jack and Stella to find out what happened to her. The story involves lots of scary scenes and a few dogs.

How did you come up with the idea for The Detective’s Daughter series and, in particular, the character of Stella?

A cleaner and a detective share something in common. Both encounter scenes of relative chaos and restore order. Both have a forensic eye for detail and get to enter a lot of different premises, legitimately. However, it struck me as interesting if the cleaner had a link to a detective yet was in contention with that role. Stella wanted to break away from her father so at eighteen refused to join the police. She struck out on her own as a cleaner. But as the series has progressed she grows closer to her dead father and accepts her ‘investigator’ heritage.

The Dog Walker is the fifth book in The Detective’s Daughter series.  What are the challenges of writing a series compared to a standalone novel?

There are not many. It’s a pleasure to revisit characters that develop with each novel. The main challenge is that previous books obviously set ‘facts’ in stone. Then again I like working within some boundaries; I have to dig deeper. Mainly though, a series gives me opportunities to develop less prominent characters, show the changes experience has wrought upon Jack and Stella over a longer story arc. One of these strands is the changing relationship between Stella and Jack and their personal journeys.

Are you a dog walker yourself?

I am. It’s how I came up with the idea. I walk my dog on dark early mornings in empty eerie places. One day it occurred to me that I assumed that the people I’d meet were other dog walkers and that therefore I was safe. But what if I was wrong?

You wrote a short story, The Runaway, about Stella’s childhood.  What was the motivation for this?

It was a chance to open a window into Stella’s past that in a novel would be a distraction from the story. I wanted to explore her early years – the seven year old Stella paid dearly for her parents’ break up – it has contributed to who she has become.

When writing, do you like to have the plot fully worked out or see where the story takes you?

Like Stella I’m a Spreadsheet Queen. I plot out the story, chapter by chapter, including who’s in each chapter, what happens and why. This plan will change as I write. I revisit the spreadsheet and add or takeaway proposed chapters. But I need to know the entire story before I start and this includes the final scene. Within the chapters things will happen that I hadn’t planned.

Do you have a special place to write or any writing rituals?

I write in a tiny study overlooking the Sussex Downs. Even when it’s grey and misty outside I have a long view and lots of light. I start at the same time every day, break for coffee at 11, lunch at 1 and a walk with the dog. Back after about an hour and then work until 5.30. I drink from a particular mug that I never use outside work time (you did ask). I could go on, but best that I don’t….

What other writers do you admire?

Many, but here’s a few: Wilkie Collins, The Brontës, Charles Dickens, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell and Ngaio Marsh. Contemporary: Elly Griffiths, Tana French, Michael Connelly, Kate Atkinson and Donna Tartt.

I know you teach creative writing.  What is the main piece of advice you give your students?

To get inside the story you’re telling, live and breathe it; believe in its truth. Write the story you want to read, not one you think others would like because how can you cover everyone’s tastes? Above all: keep writing.

What are you working on next?  Are there further cases waiting for Stella?

Yes there are. Stella and Jack move to the countryside to try to solve the murder of a young woman forty years ago. Living in a large old house in the middle of nowhere gradually, as the clues fall into place, they see that the murderer is still out there.

Thank you, Lesley, for those fascinating answers – especially the clues about the next The Detective’s Daughter book!

LesleyThomsonAbout the Author

Lesley Thomson grew up in west London. Her first novel, A Kind of Vanishing, won the People’s Book Prize in 2010. Her second novel, The Detective’s Daughter, was a #1 bestseller and sold over 500,000 copies. Lesley combines writing with teaching creative writing. She lives in Lewes with her partner.

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