by Imogen G.


Author Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in East Africa in what is now Tanzania, and emigrated to the UK in 1968. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994, Paradise is a coming of age story set in East Africa prior to the First World War, and during the German occupation. The book is beautifully written in a lyrical, mythical style, and takes the story of Yusuf, from the Koran, as the loose basis for its plot.

The boy first. His name was Yusuf, and he left his home suddenly during his twelfth year. He remembered it was the season of drought … Unexpected flowers bloomed and died. Strange insects scuttled from under rocks and writhed to their deaths in the burning light.”

The Swahili boy Yusuf is plucked from his home in the first pages of the book in order to settle his father’s longstanding debt to a wealthy Arab merchant, ‘Uncle Aziz’. Yusuf becomes, in effect, a domestic slave – long after the practice had been officially prohibited. The title Paradise may, at least in part, allude ironically to the preconceptions of Western tourists to the eastern coast of Africa; the location is not much of a paradise for Yusuf, who – like historical East Africa – is a powerless pawn, subject to dominance by exploitative forces beyond his control, whether Arab or European.

The paradise of the title no doubt also refers to the beautiful walled garden that belongs to Aziz, and is largely barred to Yusuf, and which serves as a sort of gilded cage for Aziz’s wives Zulekha and Amina. As Yusuf matures, his good looks and nature lead the older, physically disfigured wife Zulekha to take an uncomfortable interest in him, while he is increasingly sexually attracted to young women that he meets, particularly the forbidden Amina. Zulekha, who is rumoured to be “crazy”, feels that Yusuf’s touch may heal her:

She says you are a beautiful boy. She watches you in her mirrors in the trees when you walk in the garden. Have you seen the mirrors?

Because the tragic Yusuf is largely a symbolic figure, I struggled a bit with the book. I (lazily?) prefer to engage with fiction that is strongly character-driven, and I never really believed in Yusuf as a fully fledged person – that’s not the point of the book. So I must to admit that, although undoubtedly brilliant in its writing and in its construction, the novel didn’t involve or move me. Although successful on its terms, Paradise is simply not a book that I was drawn to.

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