It’s grim up north – northern Morocco, that is. Mathilde, arriving in 1946 by mule cart, is a bride fresh from Alsace. And she hasn’t fallen for some white-suited colonialist, but rather the broadly handsome Amine Belhaj, a Moroccan soldier billeted in her town after Liberation. Determined to slip the bonds tying her to bourgeois France, Mathilde bets all on an exotic life in Meknes. Except it’s not Meknes, but a farm 15 miles outside town. And not really so much a farm as a windowless, tin-roofed shack in the middle of nowhere.
And Mathilde isn’t the only disappointed one. Amine’s one sustenance through years of fighting and as a POW was this farm, bought by his father. Except now he curses him for this patch of dry scrubland, barely able to produce weeds, let alone the orchards and wheat fields of which he dreams. Meanwhile, their firstborn daughter, Aïcha, dreads her first day at school, and with good cause, shunned by both “hopscotch-playing” Europeans and “whispering natives” for her curly hair and strange, homemade clothes.
In fact, all of the characters in Leïla Slimani’s novel are struggling to forge a life in alien territory, all operating in terrain – physical, psychological, imagined – that has been seized by others. Amine’s younger brother, Omar, wants his country back from these French invaders; their sister, Selma, craves the freedom granted to American teenagers, not the constraints of conservative Islam. Even Mathilde and Amine find themselves bewildered by each other’s expectations of marriage.
And no, this is not one of the tightly focused mind-thrillers for which Slimani is celebrated, whether the sex-obsessed Adèle or the child-killing nanny of Lullaby. Having stated that she wants to stretch herself, to push into a roomier canvas and write one of the birth-to-death sagas she herself once loved to read, she has delved into her own colourful family history for this, the first in a planned trilogy.
And the resulting book is certainly as wild and lush as a wildflower meadow, the characters and their backstories bursting with random aplomb from the grass. But just as there are a thousand ways to meander through a meadow, there’s no clear path through this multi-focused book either. Each time you start to become absorbed by one person’s dilemma, the POV shifts, sometimes to a character who flits through for less than a page.
There’s Mourad, Amine’s wartime aide-de-camp, who turns up at the farm, bedraggled, sporting toothless gums and an amour fou for Amine. Or Dragan Palosi, a local gynaecologist, who dreams of exporting apricots and peaches back to his native Hungary. Or Mademoiselle Fabré, who lives like a Moroccan in the Medina, dispensing advice routinely ignored by the local girls.
With such rich material, it’s a shame that Slimani’s research is sometimes worn heavily – confronted by a prostitute, Mourad recalls the brothels for non-white troops but also pointedly tells us that they were organised by “the Native Affairs Bureau”. And yet at other times, the writing is careless – we’re told that Mathilde loves the movies, “her whole body straining towards the Technicolor faces”, when they have just seen a film in black and white.
Real life is, famously, stranger than fiction and it’s hard not to feel that Slimani has relinquished her pinpoint writer’s eye and fallen fatally under the spell of this redolent but personal material. Incidents are included even though they seem to have no pay-off, while events with genuine narrative consequence are muscled out by the next anecdote. It will be fascinating to see what the next instalment – set in the late 60s – brings, but one can’t help hoping that the writer learns (like her farming grandfather) to sort the wheat from the chaff.