Leila Slimani’s Debut Novel in Planned Moroccan Trilogy is High-Level Historical Drama | Canberra weather

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In the last days of World War II, young Mathilde falls in love with a dashing Moroccan soldier, Amine. Nineteen and tempestuous, the young Frenchwoman has been locked up in her Alsatian village for four years, less upset by the war than by the lack of adventure. The couple are getting married. When Mathilde arrives in Rabat to meet her new husband, she regrets the fact that her dress is stained with vomit, soiled after a difficult crossing from Algiers. This is a bad start for a relationship that will tip to the brink of violence, a bit like the restless Morocco in the years before independence. Unbeknownst to Mathilde, Amine has another love – a rocky farm 15 miles from the city of Meknes. It is here that the young French bride goes to seek and grapple with the prospect of settling in the wasteland of Amine. Mathilde also stares at the barrel of another more intimate disappointment. When Amine returns home, she no longer recognizes her preoccupied and sometimes surly husband, obsessed with creating a productive orchard. The stage is set for a great historical drama on desire, ambition and the end of French domination in Morocco. Rabat-born Leila Slimani said she plans to incorporate this novel into a Moroccan trilogy. It’s a departure from her second bestselling book, Lullaby, about a nanny who murders two children. Equally provocative was her first novel, Adele, about a woman addicted to sex. The Country of Others shows Slimani moving from the singular obsessions of earlier works to something larger and richer, but still tumultuous. This work is also charged with the choppy and swerving waves of characters crashing into each other as Morocco heads towards an implosion. After an uneven start, Slimani brings together an impressive cast of characters. There is Aicha, the quiet precocious daughter of Amine and Mathilde. At a young age, her life is already radically different from that of either parent, her convent education and academic achievement set her apart. Very early on, Aicha also realizes that she belongs neither to her Moroccan comrades nor to her French comrades, with their blond hair and their ruddy complexion. There is Selma, the sensual younger sister of Amine and Omar. Like the teenager Mathilde, Selma longs for freedom, adventure and love. During a brief hiatus, as a controlling and brutal Omar organizes himself within the Moroccan resistance, she leaves for the European part of Meknes. She smokes, watches movies and has a romance with a French guy. Amine is enraged when he learns of the date, and he quickly cuts off her wings. Selma, unlike Mathilde, will not be allowed to marry across national borders. She is forced to marry Mourad, the toothless foreman of the farm. Even the unfortunate Mourad desires the impossible. He was Amine’s aide-de-camp during the war and fell in love with him on the continent. One night, he arrives unexpectedly at the farm. He is quickly hired as a foreman, but his proximity to Amine is torture. Amine lends him a waistcoat and a shirt, and the mere smell of Amine on those borrowed clothes sends her into paroxysms of guilty lust. There’s Dragan Palosi, one of the novel’s most intriguing characters. He is an obstetrician and a Hungarian Jew who deals with Amine to fulfill a long-held dream of exporting oranges and dates to his homeland. He also dreams of doing something daring: making exotic African fruits available behind the iron curtain. Omar, Amine’s younger brother, rants against the “rancid and conformist” society that surrounds him. He has a ruthless determination to crush the French in Morocco in the same way Hitler briefly defeated them in the homeland. Omar’s willingness to sacrifice everything for the cause will undoubtedly see him emerge as a pro-independence leader in the second part of the planned trilogy. Slimani’s dynamism and energy propel the story despite some glaring translation errors. The rough, tumble-down descriptions and patchy characterizations are also shocking. Mathilde and Amine’s relationship remains at the heart of the work. The couple navigate the fragile and racist social mores of the time, and make tender and surprising accommodations for each other. Mathilde complains that being married to a “native” is impossible in Meknes, and life on the farm frequently puts her courage to the test. At the beginning of the novel, Amine, a relentless agricultural innovator, grafts a lemon onto an orange tree. The tree, nicknamed the lemange, produces fleshy fruit without the qualities of either parent plant. The strange hybrid sounds a warning to Moroccans like Amine. He just wants to be left alone to create a productive farm on his once barren land. It remains to be seen if this will be possible in the tumult of times in the second part.

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