THE PLOT: Set in 1492, Granada by Radwa Ashour is about an ordinary Muslim family who must survive the Christian conquest of Arabic Spain. As the Castilian forces enter Granada, Muslims are slowly stripped of their rights. They must burn books written in Arabic, can no longer buy property, and are eventually forced to convert. The novel follows the extended family of Abu Jaafar, the bookbinder, as they try to cling onto their heritage. Some family members try to assimilate, some join the freedom fighters in the mountains, and some find escape in Christopher Columbus’s “New World”. But the winding family saga ultimately hinges on whether each family member can find their own way to cling onto their faith, without facing the flames of the Spanish Inquisition.
RATING: This novel was slow to start so I’m giving it three stars. A sprawling historical novel with an epic scope, once it got going there was a convincing narrative, which pulled me in. Winner of the first Women’s Arab Book Fair in 1996, this work of translated fiction is a huge achievement and well worth a read if you want to learn more about this era. The first volume in a trilogy, sadly the rest of the novels have not yet been translated into English from Arabic.
GOOD BITS: I started to enjoy this novel once I became familiar with the characters. After I got through the multiple weddings, each couple came into their own and a consistent storyline pulled them together. For example, I loved the character of Maryama, who was introduced later in the story because she marries Abu Jaafar’s grandson. Maryama was such a likeable character, with a lot of humour, warmth and realism. Similarly, I came to love Saleema (Abu Jaafar’s granddaughter), who tries to be a learned woman against the church’s rules, and her husband Saad, who fights for the rights of Muslims.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: I couldn’t get into the first few chapters and had to try hard to persevere. I didn’t know which characters to focus on and there was too much historical detail. I’ve pinpointed the problem as ‘moving too quickly’. In the first few pages, we jolt between Abu Jafaar’s “vision”, to a flashback with Naeem’s memories, to a confusing account of political intrigues. This could have been solved with a clearer set up – starting with a full chapter in Abu Jafaar’s point of view, getting used to his domestic life and becoming endeared with his character. Then, the following chapter could’ve contained the catalyst of the Castilians entering the city and ensuing political chaos.
Additionally, there were a lot of early scenes about falling in love and marriage. Although the descriptions of medieval Arabic wedding customs were interesting, they became tiresome because the details didn’t serve the plot. This also led into some questionable descriptions of women. As a female author, I was surprise Ashour spent so much time describing the bodies of young girls and women sexually. We need to accept the historical context – girls were married young back in the day – but there were some uncomfortable descriptions of a nine-year-old girl getting attention from a 13-year-old boy.
If we set this in its historical context, previously I haven’t complained about similar issues in other modern novels about the same time period. For example, Philippa Gregory writes about Margaret Beaufort, Henry Tudor’s mother, who was married in 1455 at age twelve. However, novelists like Philippa Gregory subtly highlight the uncomfortable issues with child marriage. Whereas, I felt like Ashour paints it too positively, which made me feel a little icky.
OVERALL: I’d recommend this book to lovers of medieval historical fiction. If you love learning about the Tudors, this provides another perspective to that era – and there’s a nice link to the parents of Catherine of Aragon, Isabella and Ferdinand, as well as the Spanish colonisation of the Americas. I feel like historical fiction often perpetuates a pervading England-centric portrayal of medieval history (due to the legacy of the British Empire). So, this is great opportunity to diversify your reading and knowledge, while supporting a female Egyptian author and a work of translated fiction. However, if you already struggle with historical fiction and need strong characters and plot from the start, this book isn’t for you.