The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story by Hanan Al-Shaykh
Published in 2010 by Bloomsbury Paperbacks
My version: Secondhand copy
Kamila is nine years old when she is taken from the poverty of her childhood village in southern Lebanon to Beirut. She has never learned to read or write though she longs to go to school. Stories, poetry and film are her passion – and a beautiful boy called Muhammad. They fall in love before Kamila is forced into an arranged marriage, despite her tears and screams. She is only fourteen years old. On her wedding night her first daughter is conceived; four years later, Hanan is born. Kamila and Muhammad continue to see each other in secret, risking their lives.
I am not usually a fan of memoirs but I thought this one sounded really interesting and I managed to get a cheap secondhand copy. We start with a brief intro from the author, before she tells her mother’s story in the first person.
Kamila is a headstrong young girl, and she is opinionated and unconventional. However her life changes when her father runs off with another woman and they go to live with her half-siblings from her mother’s first marriage. There are all sorts of different personalities in the house, and Kamila finds herself getting on with some of her extended family but not others. She is also denied the right to go to school and finds herself looking after her young nieces and nephews, cooking and cleaning, which she hates.
She lies to her family a lot in order to sneak off to the cinema to see the films she falls in love with – and also to meet with a young man with whom she also falls in love. But of course things do not go to plan…
I found the book really interesting at first and I liked reading about Kamila’s family and their roles within the household. However I found it really hard to like Kamila. Although her predicament was terrible, I never felt that I got to know her fully – and this was even more the case with her family members who never came across as anything more than two-dimensional. I also found parts of the book hard to believe; for example, how did Kamila manage to keep sneaking into her beloved’s bedroom in such a strict, segregated country where she couldn’t even be seen at the cinema with a man?
I think it was the style of the writing here that didn’t quite work for me. It seemed very impassive and it was hard to really care what happened to any of the characters. Also Kamila’s children were born and then seemed to pretty much disappear from the book, which I also found odd.
This memoir gives an interesting glimpse into another culture, but just that – a glimpse, and no more. I would have liked a bit more depth and detail, and more rounded characters, to consider this a really good read.