Informative and necessary, Abdulrazak Gurnah uses stripped back prose to tell the stories of Hamza, Ilyas and Afiya in his insightful new novel, Afterlives. It’s a satisfying linear tale, and one that doesn’t need any literary embellishments to bring the narrative to life. Gurnah takes us through the lives of his characters in a simple, effective manner. The precision of the prose allows the purity of the everyday to shine. Gurnah weaves this rather typical story with historical references, again with his trademark clarity. But don’t let the ‘quietness’ of this novel fool you – Gurnah leaves much for readers to consider, peeling back the curtain on this lesser acknowledged period of time and place.
The story begins with a focus on Khalifa, the bookkeeper whose presence remains important throughout the novel, even when the narrative seems to drift from his story. However, the introduction of Afiya is when the book really begins to take shape. After an abusive experience with a foster family, her long-lost brother’s (Ilyas) heroic return transforms Afiya into a confident and literate young woman, renewing the sense of hope and trust that she lost. Later, the passionate and intense relationship between Hamza and Afiya breathes an exciting air of romance into the novel. After this, the narrative seems to solidify; lives are lived and lost, voices established and, all the while, the changing face of history works frantically away in the background.
The glimpse Gurnah gives us into a life under colonial rule in this area of Africa is insightful and considered. I learnt so much in this novel – the chaos of war, the complexity of the altering politics, and – most importantly – the humanity that existed behind these facts and figures. If nothing else, Afterlives acts as a satisfying way of bringing colour into history, especially one that the majority of Europeans aren’t as aware of.
We experience the lives of our characters from start to finish, and it’s interesting to read about these times and environments through different eyes. The way that vulnerability is exposed as we move through the perspectives was humbling; the emotional growth obtained from inner monologues and tragic experiences gently builds, so we are left with a fully formed, real persona, which we have been gradually allowed to witness coming together.
This is a subtle technique from a writer who clearly doesn’t need to rely on the fussiness of language to capture his readers’ attentions. The linear aspect of the novel, working our way through the significant periods in our characters’ lives, worked well alongside the interjection of historical elements. We see first-hand how their situations change, the troubled moving world around them, and what that means for their future.
My favourite character progression has to be Afiya. Abandoned from a young age and taken in by an abusive family, Afiya evolves throughout the novel to become a defiant character, in touch with her significance as a young woman. I loved that Gurnah didn’t rely on the typical representation of a ‘repressed’ woman in Afterlives – instead, Afiya overcomes her trauma to transform into a quick-witted person. The men around her defy traditional stereotypes too – they (on the whole) support and care for Afiya, encouraging her to better herself as their world expands. Afiya is headstrong and humble. She is the lynch pin of the stories in Afterlives, interlinking the narratives of Hamza and the elusive Ilyas. Her clinging to hope ultimately decides the fate of the novel, and I loved that her ambitious optimisms were preserved in her son.
It’s interesting that I felt so connected to Afiya, especially as Afterlives fosters this unique detached tone of voice. I say unique, as it’s not how I expected an emotive story to be presented, yet it ended up working wonderfully. At first, I was confused by the almost ‘matter of fact’ presentation. I wanted more depth from the language, rather than the simple presentation of facts and events Gurnah gave us. At times, I was frustrated that I didn’t understand more about the characters or the setting – I wanted to feel immersed, rather than distant.
However, I soon begun to appreciate Gurnah’s intentions; he is simply telling the story of his characters’ lives, and their actions provide much more than any fancy imagery or description techniques would give us. There’s a subtle beauty to his method, and the more I sat with and analysed the book, the more I came to understand the necessity of Gurnah’s delivery. The humility of humanity and the way we interact with one another shines through, without the clutter of language.
Afterlives ends rather abruptly and without flourish. Gurnah’s straightforward approach concludes a complex and colourful story, mirroring the simplicity of life and death. I was left feeling strange and untethered for a while after I finished this book, having just been taken a whirlwind whisk through the highs and lows of Afiya, Hamza and Ilyas’ interlinking lives. The novel allows for a level of reflection through its quick and detailed approach to these stories. Gurnah is a skilled storyteller, and Afterlives is a fantastic example of a how seemingly quiet book can grow and subvert expectations.
Afterlives is published by Bloomsbury and is available here.
Abdulrazak Gurnah is the author of nine novels: Memory of Departure, Pilgrims Way, Dottie, Paradise(shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Award), Admiring Silence, By the Sea (longlisted for the Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Award), Desertion (shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize) The Last Gift and Gravel Heart. He was Professor of English at the University of Kent, and was a Man Booker Prize judge in 2016. He lives in Canterbury.
Reviewed by Mariah Feria
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