Creative Fiction, Culture, Narratives, Politics, Review, Uncategorized

Book Review: ‘A Mouth Full of Salt’ by Reem Gaafar

A seemingly idyllic remote village in 1980s Northern Sudan is hit by inexplicably dreadful events in quick succession. A search party is on the lookout for the body of a little boy, presumed drowned, one of numerous young victims claimed by the treacherous waters. He is the only child of Sulafa; a beleaguered first wife in a polygamous set-up, bullied by her abusive husband and cruel in-laws. Much of the village’s livestock is struck by a mysterious deadly virus. Whilst the carcasses are being incinerated, an unrelated fire blights the town’s date gardens.  A young girl dies in a freak accident days before she is due to wed. 

Conspiracy theories abound. Some locals blame an enigmatic woman living in the hills, accused of sorcery. Meanwhile, 14 year-old Fatima is preoccupied with her upcoming exam results. Unlike most of her peers, she has no interest in the marriage already arranged by her family to a close relative. Education is her route out of the village but the ever-encroaching tragedy threatens to waylay her plans.

Three decades earlier, Sudan is at the cusp of independence from the British. Sole parent, Nyamakeem ekes out a meagre living in the country’s capital to support her only child, Kheir Alseed. Her marriage to her late husband, Hassan, was disapproved of by both families; she a dark-skinned Southerner, he an Arab from the North. Denied their due inheritance by Nyamakeem’s vengeful in-laws and Hassan’s second wife, Kheir Alseed decides to pursue what is rightfully his, to his mother’s fear and dismay.

A Mouth Full of Salt is the riveting debut novel from multi-hyphenated Sudanese-Canadian writer, medic and auteur, Reem Gaafar. Winner of the 2023 Island Prize, A Mouth Full of Salt captivates from the first line with its intoxicating mix of high intrigue, socio-political commentary and (post)colonial history. The title ostensibly derives from a Sudanese expression denoting devastating loss. Gaafar translates her storytelling craft from screen to page with an enviable facility. Her narrative skills are so effective that the novel’s second act -compelling in its own right – feels at first like a rude interruption as the reader is left dangling on the cliff edge of part one.

Gaafar’s reflections on ingrained patriarchal norms – perpetuated by men and women alike – resemble the subtle but resounding critique of contemporary African feminist writing by the likes of Sefi Atta and Tsitsi Dangarembga. Neither does the author side-step the historic ethnic tensions, colourism and outright Arab-on-Black racism, compounded and exploited by the erstwhile British imperial powers.

The publication of A Mouth Full of Salt is sadly topical. During the first quarter of the 21st century alone Sudan has undergone incredible upheaval. In 2011, South Sudan seceded from the rest of the territory. The country is once again ravaged by a brutal civil war, five years on from the popular ousting of autocrat, Omar al-Bashir who oversaw another internecine conflict 20 years ago. Ruthless military leadercontinue to hold the country to ransom, as the defiant Sudanese population refuses to give up on their democratic ambitions. 

Despite being one of the worst current humanitarian crises, a war-weary world largely looks the other way. There is apparently only so much empathy to go around, especially when the victims are brown. Culture nevertheless has a way of cutting through the noise, making these seemingly complex socio-historic factors more accessible. As it garners more critical (and hopefully commercial) acclaim, A Mouth Full of Salt might help ensure that the plight of Sudan stays on the radar.

This review also appears on the I Was Just Thinking blog

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