Book review: Leila Aboulela's "Bird Summons"

The arc of self-discovery

Interweaving the real with the fantastical, Leila Aboulela's latest book is a lovingly drawn portrait of evolving friendships. Practically co-dependent at the outset, three women embark on a joint pilgrimage, discovering not only that they like each other, but that they also like themselves. Richard Marcus read the book

In Leila Aboulela's newest novel, Bird Summons, published by Grove Atlantic, we meet three Muslim women whose lives are weighed down by obligation, regret, frustration and boredom. To say they are in a rut would be both an understatement and an oversimplification. Each of them has been cast roles in life that probably weren't their first choice.

On the surface everything seems normal. They belong to the local Arab Speaking Muslim Women's Group, have husbands, and in two cases children. Salma, the leader of the trio and the chair of the Women's Group, is a registered massage therapist, married to a Scottish convert to Islam. They have two children and are seemingly a contented family.

Moni had a successful career in banking, but gave it up to care for her severely disabled child. Her life revolves around her son to the exclusion of almost everything else. She has pushed husband and friendships aside in her pursuit of being the best possible care-giving mother she can be. Her focus has become so narrow that it precludes anything else, including her husband and her friends.

Rounding off the trio is Iman. A refugee from Syria, she was sent to Scotland by her parents to achieve a better life. Pretty and sheltered, and told because of her beauty she's only fit for marriage, her life so far has been a series of disappointments. Only in her twenties, she's already on her third marriage and has yet to conceive. She still yearns for her family and her home, and somehow thinks she was sent away because she wasn't wanted.

Cover of Leila Aboulela's "Bird Summons" (published by Grove Atlantic)
Paralleling a traditional fable: taking "The Conference of the Birds" by the Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar as her inspiration, Aboulela manages the delicate balancing act of emulating its themes and bringing them to life in a modern context, without insisting her readers have any pre-existing awareness of the work. What could have been a mundane tale of three women dealing with personal issues is turned into something magical and fantastical, bringing home their realities in a deeper and more meaningful manner

A magical pilgrimage

Salma organises an excursion to the grave of a Scottish convert to Islam – the first British woman to make the pilgrimage to Mecca – for their Woman's Group. The rest of the women back out, however, leaving only Salma and her two friends to make the journey.

As we are introduced to the women we can't help thinking they are an unlikely trio of companions. They seemingly have nothing in common, yet here they are heading off on a pilgrimage together.

As with many pilgrimages there are way stations the supplicants must stop at and obstacles for them to overcome. It's at their way station, the island where the lodge they're staying at is located, that the tone of the novel changes. Here, the narrative, which to all appearances was a straightforward story concerning the lives of three women, becomes something more; something magical.

When Iman's third husband tracks them down in order to tell her they have to separate since as his parents don't approve of her – and then it comes out they had never really been married – she's understandably devastated.

Nothing either of her two friends says to her can make her feel better. Iman begins to revert to childlike behavior, dressing up in costumes she finds in the wardrobe in her room at the lodge and removing her hijab in public. It is then that the hoopoe makes an entrance.

Those familiar with The Conference of the Birds by the Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar, will recognise the hoopoe as a key element from that story. It leads the rest of the birds on a quest to find the magical home of the bird king.

Thinking back over Aboulela's lead-up to this point in her story, those familiar with the poem will begin to see how she has set up her tale to parallel the original fable.

However, familiarity with Attar's poem is not necessary to enjoy the intricacies and intelligence of this book. Aboulela has managed the delicate balancing act of emulating its themes and bringing them to life in a modern context, without insisting her readers have any pre-existing awareness of the work.

She uses the story not only to take what could have been a mundane tale of three women dealing with personal issues and turn it into something magical and fantastic, but also to bring home their realities in a deeper and more meaningful manner.

Changing dynamics

While on the island each of the women has an experience that helps them understand who they are, thereby changing the dynamics of their relationships. In the past the other two had tended to lean on Salma, and she enjoyed playing mother/big sister to Iman and giving Moni advice. It was Salma who managed to persuade Moni to put her son in a care home and make the trip.

Salma likes to give the impression she's got both her life in order and outward appearances; career, family and active social life help make that illusion seem real. However, like her two friends she is experiencing significant dissatisfaction with her current situation. Reconnecting with her former fiance in Egypt, and the reminders of having been a real doctor, not just a massage therapist, leave her wondering what she has missed out on by moving to Scotland.

Aboulela takes each of her three protagonists on a highly believable arc of self-discovery. Each of them come to realise how much they have been limiting themselves by playing the roles they have been cast in by family and circumstances. Moni is being crushed by the weight of playing the responsible, martyr even, mother of a disabled child – neglecting everything else in her life, including her husband. Iman has been playing the childlike pretty doll for so long she has never allowed herself to discover any of her potential, while Salma has romanticised her past to such an extent she has forgotten the costs associated with her previous life.

Bird Summons is a lovingly drawn portrait of evolving friendships. Practically co-dependent at the outset, three women embark on a joint pilgrimage, discovering not only that they like each other, but that they also like themselves. Aboulela has done a masterful job of interweaving elements of The Conference of the Birds into her modern tale, creating something both real and fantastical for readers to enjoy.

Richard Marcus

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