The first part of a planned trilogy, this family saga draws on memories of Leïla Slimani’s own Franco-Moroccan heritage.
Mathilde, an impulsive, immature young Frenchwoman who has grown up in Alsace, falls in love with Amine, a Moroccan who fought for France in the Second World War, enduring captivity as a POW in the process. A relationship which seems largely based on physical attraction is strained at times almost to breaking point by the inevitable cultural differences which neither has anticipated. “You can’t be serious” Mathilde exclaims on learning that they will have to live with Amine’s mother for months before he can gain access to the land he has inherited. “Here, that’s the way it goes,” is Amine’s stern response, having sat down to mask his wife’s height advantage, which might sap his authority.
When the land proves poor, further stress hastens Amine’s metamorphosis into a dour workaholic, finding occasional relief only in drinking sessions with friends in local bars, his frustration too often exploding into violence which may be justified to some extent by the norms of his society . Mathilde, it has to be said, is quite an irritating woman, yet one’s sympathy is aroused when the white colonial wives openly disparage her for “being pregnant by an Arab”. The resilience and stoicism she develops over time are admirable, although her passive acceptance, even complicity in some of Amine’s worst actions is troubling. She goes beyond a fleshed-out character to one who seems a mass of contradictions.
Amine has some redeeming features. Brought up as a muslim, he shows tolerance in letting their daughter Aïsha attend a Catholic school, where the bright little girl is horribly bullied and perhaps as a result becomes excessively pious. In the ferocious battle for Moroccan independence Amine tries to avoid taking either side, literally grafting orange on to lemon trees in the novel’s recurring metaphor. Even when at risk of losing everything during a general torching of the locality, he is able to teach his daughter that in wars, the concept of good and bad people, along with justice, cease to apply – people we have grown up with become our enemies.
Yet, overall, the book is too long, laboured, repetitive and somewhat disjointed, so that the reader is left wondering what happens to a particular character, or has to assume that certain key events have taken place. For instance, from being grindingly poor the family seems to become suddenly better off, but the process of change is unclear. Mathilde’s development as provider of an unofficial local medical centre seems implausible in the light of her other well-intentioned but half-baked projects. Conversely, some quite minor incidents are given undue coverage, before drifting away to nothing. As is often the way with French novels, there is too much “telling” rather than “showing”. So we have to receive a mini history lesson on 1950s Morocco at one point – useful, but the facts could have been woven more subtly into the tale.
For me a shorter novel with a stronger narrative drive would have proved more engaging. As it stands, it may improve on a second reading.