River Spirit by Leila Aboulela

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Review by Annabel

I discovered Leila Aboulela with her previous novel Bird Summons, in which three Muslim women living in Edinburgh go on a road trip and spiritual quest to the Scottish Highlands to visit the grave of a Scottish aristocrat who became the first British woman to make the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1933. Each of the three women had a different story of being Muslims in Scotland, three different characters, but also with much in common. This novel was full of detail and Aboulela captured each of the women perfectly; after all, she writes as a Sudanese author living in Scotland herself. 

For her new novel, River Spirit, she returns to Sudan and its turbulent history in the 1880s, when a new revolutionary leader who called himself the ‘Mahdi’, led a rebellion against the Khedive of Egypt, which had latterly been governed by the British Major-General Gordon. Gordon had left in 1880, returning to Khartoum in 1884 to evacuate loyal troops and citizens. However, he stayed on against orders to confront the Mahdi, leading to much bloodshed and the fall of the city; the reinforcements that he had forced the British government to send arrived just a day or so too late. 

Aboulela grew up in the Sudanese capital, steeped in the tragic story of General Gordon, the self-proclaimed Mahdi, and the Siege of Khartoum. It is particularly poignant that this novel was published just a month before the news became full of Sudan again, when rival factions of the military government there ignited a new internal conflict particularly in Khartoum and Darfur (again), which rages still.   

River Spirit is told in seven different voices. The principal ones are those of Akuany, who is orphaned when her village is raided, and Yaseen, a young merchant, with whom her father had been trading. He promises to look after her and her brother, even going so far as make a vow to do so, which as a deeply principled young man, he holds himself to as far as he is able through the years. He leaves Akuany and her brother with a friendly family as he goes trading, but Akuany will find herself separated from her brother and sold into slavery. 

Yaseen will stop trading and go to university in Cairo, returning to work for the government. He doesn’t believe in the Mahdi, but must be careful, as friends and colleagues gradually convert to the Mahdi’s promise of freedom for Sudan. His and Akuany’s paths will cross again over the years, and he tries to honour his promise to her. Theirs is very much a will-they-won’t-they relationship, as despite Yaseen having to marry another, the reader hopes that maybe love will fully develop between the pair.

Like many Brits, my knowledge of this period of Sudan’s history is severely limited, and highly coloured by the 1966 epic war film Khartoum, in which Charlton Heston played Gordon and Laurence Olivier was the Mahdi in blackface, (I’m rather glad it’s been decades since I saw it!). Aboulela bravely makes Gordon one of her narrators giving him a chapter towards the end of the siege. By working from Gordon’s journals during her research, she has succeeded in portraying him as a conflicted man, one who didn’t believe the siege would end as it did. He was wrong of course and ended up a martyr and hero to Victorian Britain.

It was really refreshing to read Leila Aboulela’s well-researched novel, which brought a fresh perspective to these times. Although first-hand accounts from women’s points of view were essentially non-existent during this period, she has pieced together the scant facts to create a memorable character in Akuany with her hard life, but also of Yaseen’s mother Fatimah and sister Halima, and later, his wife Salha.

We also hear from Musa, one of the followers and right-hand men of the Mahdi, who again gives another perspective to the story as a disciple. The Mahdi is a messianic figure of Islamic culture, said to be a descendant of Muhammad, who will appear to rid the world of evil and injustice and lead Muslims to rule the world. Over the centuries, many have claimed to be him, including Muhammad Ahmad, a Nubian Sufi who came from the Samaniyya line, which had been predicted to produce the redeemer. 

The remaining voice to mention is that of Robert, a Scottish painter from Edinburgh, which brings a flavour of Aboulela’s adopted country into the narrative. He is in Sudan to paint the Nile, but it is his painting of Akuany, whom he bought at the slave market to be his house girl, that will finally earn her her freedom, and the chance to find Yaseen again. 

This novel is full of historical detail, seen afresh through the lenses of Aboulela’s various narrators, which gives a panoramic picture of the city and its surroundings situated at the confluence of the White and Blue Niles – an immersive reading experience indeed! It’s not just history though: we care about Akuany and Yaseen throughout and hope for that happy ending – if it’s possible… As a rare reader of historical fiction, I loved this novel and recommend it to you highly. 

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Annabel is one of Shiny’s co-founders and editors.

Leila Aboulela, River Spirit (Saqi, 2023). 978-0863569173, 320pp., hardback.

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