The Country of Others by Leïla Slimani

Translated by Sam Taylor

Reviewed by Harriet

Back in 2018 I read and reviewed Leïla Slimani’s best-selling, Goncourt-Prize-winning novel Lullaby [here]. Soon afterwards I also read her 2014 Adèle, which Annabel reviewed [here]. Slimani has also won a prize for this, her most recent book – the Grand Prix de l’Héroïne Madame Figaro – but The Country of Others is a very different cup of tea from the other two, both of which were intentionally shocking and disturbing. I don’t mean to imply that this one is bland, far from it. It’s what’s generally called a family saga, though that seems a rather reductive way of describing it. It’s the first in a planned trilogy based on the lives of her grandparents, and it’s fascinating, thought-provoking and sometimes upsetting, though an altogether less bumpy ride than her previous novels: even the prose, which in those was made up of short, clipped sentences, here flows in long, often poetic paragraphs.

This is the story of Mathilde, a young woman from Alsace in north-east France. In 1944 she had met Amine, a handsome young Muslim Moroccan lance corporal, who was fighting for France, and the two fell in love and married. As the novel begins, in 1947, the  young couple have just arrived at Amine’s farm after a fifteen-mile journey from Meknes on an old cart, driven by a Gypsy. Mathilde is immediately anxious – the farm is remote and they will be without a car. But though she’s apprehensive, she’s also relieved that they have their own place, as they have spent the past few months living with Amine’s mother, a situation that has shocked Mathilde deeply. When she initially objected, Amine had simply said ‘That’s how things are here’, a phrase she was to hear many times:

It was at that precise instant that she understood she was a foreigner, a woman, a wife, a being at the mercy of others. Amine was on home soil here: he was the one who explained the rules, who decided the path they would follow, who traced the borders of modesty, shame and decorum.

Mathilde will spend the coming years attempting to adapt to this situation. She is supported by the passionate love she and Amine have for each other, but her attempts to integrate – fasting for her first Ramadan, learning Arabic so she can barter with the market traders – sometimes leave her feeling like ‘a shadow, a nameless, genderless, ageless being’. And when their first child Aïcha is born, she rebukes her husband, ‘Don’t tell me that you intend to raise Aïcha as a submissive woman!’. 

Questions of race and integration permeate the novel. Mathilde is ridiculed by the local women: ‘The white woman and the darkie. The giantess and the dwarf’. And indeed Amine, much as he loves his wife, is embarrassed by the fact that she is four inches taller than he is, and privately feels ashamed that he had been willing to die for a foreign country. As for Aïcha, she feels like a misfit at school, accepted neither by the Moroccans nor the white Westerners, both of whom bully her. In her misery, she turns to the Christian prayers she has learned from the nuns at her school – an institution insisted on by her mother, and one that has infuriated her father.

The position of women in this, to Mathilde, alien culture is brought home forcefully when Amine’s young sister Selma becomes pregnant by an attractive young French airman, who promptly deserts her. When Amine finds out, he threatens his wife and sister with his revolver, and then considers shooting himself. The suggested solution that is reached to Selma’s position is to marry her off to a family retainer, old, dirty, and half mad. Mathilde is surprised and disconcerted to find herself urging the devastated and grief-stricken Selma to accept this proposition: ‘She spoke to her about inner freedom, about the need to resign herself to her fate, about the illusory dreams of true love that lured young girls to the rocks of failure and despair’. Afterwards she castigates herself:  ‘Had she become that kind of woman? The kind that urges others to be reasonable? To give up, to choose respectability over happiness?’ Selma’s acquiescence is a desperately sad outcome, and it’s hard to imagine how the young woman will survive it.

The last part of the novel is told mainly through Aïcha’s eyes. Morocco is at war with France, and the child is both confused and impressed by what is happening:

A world was vanishing before their eyes. The colonists houses were burning.The fire devoured the dresses of nice little girls, the chic coats of mothers. Books were reduced to ashes, as were family heirlooms brought from France and proudly exhibited to the natives. Aïcha couldn’t take her eyes off this spectacle. Never had the hill seemed so beautiful to her. She could have shouted with happiness.

It will be fascinating to see where Slimani takes the story from here. Meanwhile, enjoy the absorbing story and the grace of Slimani’s writing, here translated by the always admirable Sam Taylor. 

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Harriet is one of the founders and an editor of Shiny New Books

Slimani, Leïla, The Country of Others, translated by Sam Taylor (Faber & Faber, 2021). 978-0571361618, 336pp., hardback.

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Comments

  1. On Goodreads, there are versions of this where it’s called In the Country of Others, which is rather odd; maybe there was a last-minute change of heart before publication. The Dutch translation is renamed Mathilde, with one reviewer left rather confused that the story is told from multiple points of view, especially when it shifts to her daughter. Given the many Moroccan immigrants in the Netherlands, I feel as if I ought to know more about its history, so this sounds like a good way to find out more. Added to the wishlist!
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