Monday, 4 July 2016

"The Last Gift" - Abdulrazak Gurnah

There was something timely about reading the majority of this book in the week after the Brexit vote: immigration was at the forefront of my mind – a topic of conversation being explored across various media from all sorts of perspectives, ranging from the nuanced to the unsavoury and frankly frightening.
In the middle of that, this book spoke with particular eloquence.

We can’t talk constructively about these big issues without being open to information and challenge. We need factual sources we can trust. But sometimes it seems that what effective public discourse really requires is the ability to step into someone else’s story. Fiction does that. This book does that.
It’s a story I didn’t particularly love. I feel a bit embarrassed that I’m not raving about it, because the cover boasts such high praise and the (Booker prize-shortlisted) author is clearly celebrated for his proficiency. Who am I to argue otherwise?
I didn’t love it because it took me a long, long time to connect with the narrative – to really get to that point of caring about the characters and their dramas.
I’ve puzzled about why that was the case. I think it maybe had something to do with the third person narrative voice and lack of direct dialogue – not experiencing things first-hand but being told about them, recounted through beautiful but slightly arms-length prose. I wonder whether there was also something inherent in the story itself – there is so much alienation between the characters; they aren’t communicating with each other and maybe, as a reader, you’re supposed to feel that sense of being on the outside of things too.
But since finishing I’m asking a bigger question. I’m wondering whether I didn’t relate to the characters because ultimately their lives are not like mine.
It’s a story about people whose personalities and problems are not the same as mine; whose backgrounds shade their present experience in ways I can’t connect to. Their interpretation of the world is almost entirely “other” to mine – even where, on paper, there should arguably be overlap.
Maybe I didn’t love this book because a part of me just likes to surround myself with stories that reinforce my own.
And that just won’t do.
That kind of narrow-mindedness is at best unhelpful, but at worst dangerous. So I’m glad I persevered with this book. I’m glad I put in the time to get under the skin of someone else’s story. And I’m glad that we have the freedom and artists to help us glimpse different dimensions of the life we all share.

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