NORTH AFRICA, MIDDLE EAST AND CENTRAL ASIA

This book, the cover of which came emblazoned with plaudits, was another I read as part of my membership of the Shelterbox Book Club (which for a donation of £10 a month sends me a regular book for discussion as part on an online book club, and also helps to provide emergency shelter and resources for families affected by disaster worldwide). I previously reviewed A Girl Made of Dust, also read for the Book Club, so it may seem that the books focus on the female experience, but actually there is plenty of balance.

Author Layla Alammar was brought up in Kuwait, the daughter of a Kuwaiti father and an American mother. She subsequently moved to the UK, where The Pact We Made (published in 2019) was longlisted for the Author’s Club Best First Novel Award.

The main character, Dahlia, is intriguing. She is from a moneyed, cosmopolitan Kuwaiti background, and has a good job in finance, but her life is not her own. She feels dissociated from her life, and has to endure an endless succession of suitors, a bit like an unmarried, modern-day Penelope. Although her parents (and especially her father) are relatively liberal, elements of traditional Kuwaiti culture prevail, and they seek to marry her off to someone suitable, in a similar way to her sister. But Dahlia rails against the prospect of an arranged marriage, while her two best friends already seem happily settled, although at least one of the marriages is by no means as perfect as it comes across from the outside.

Dahlia’s parents are enormously protective, with the exception of one huge failure of protection that has overshadowed the family since Dahlia, now in her late 20s, was a teenager. There are indications of unresolved teenage trauma. Dahlia loves to draw, to express her personality and enjoy freedom of expression, and she loves the liberation of swimming. The importance of art is a recurring theme, and Dahlia often draws the same motifs over and over again, and she is drawn to a a number of Western artists, notably the bleak visions of Spanish 18th century painter Goya.

I found the whole novel a bit modern-day Jane Austen-y, with its obsession with making a good match, but from a contemporary, Middle Eastern perspective. I got some really interesting insights into Kuwaiti culture, where young women like Dahlia and her friends are able to enjoy a buzzing nightlife, and where Dahlia hangs out with male friends, but where male privilege goes unchallenged and unchecked. There is a heavy reliance on parental approval and whim, and an obsession with reputation (made or ruined on an alliance with a suitable – or not -man) and making a good match.

To be a child again, blissfully ignorant of everything to come, or a man, able to get in a car and drive to Istanbul – thirty-odd hours and you’re there.”

Although the book challenged various stereotypes a Western reader like myself might hold, I must admit I was disappointed to read yet another tale of sexual abuse. It seems to be the go-to storyline du jour, and not wishing to underplay the awful experiences of those who’ve been through it, I’m fed up of reading variations of the same horrible theme reheated and rehashed over and over again.

The book’s very ambiguous ending was perfect, however, and the reader is left wondering whether Dahlia’s life-changing decision is going to liberate her, or whether, through her efforts to break free of the strictures that limit her in Kuwait, she has just made herself even more powerless.

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