River Spiritby Leila Aboulela
The spellbinding new novel from New York Times Notable Author and Caine Prize winner Leila Aboulela about an embattled young woman’s coming of age during the Mahdist War in 19th century Sudan
Leila Aboulela, hailed as “a versatile prose stylist” (New York Times) has also been praised by J.M. Coetzee, Ali Smith, and Ben Okri, among others, for her rich and nuanced novels depicting Islamic spiritual and political life. Her new novel is an enchanting narrative of the years leading up to the British conquest of Sudan in 1898, and a deeply human look at the tensions between Britain and Sudan, Christianity and Islam, colonizer and colonized. In River Spirit, Aboulela gives us the unforgettable story of a people who—against the odds and for a brief time—gained independence from foreign rule through their willpower, subterfuge, and sacrifice.
When Akuany and her brother Bol are orphaned in a village raid in South Sudan, they’re taken in by a young merchant Yaseen who promises to care for them, a vow that tethers him to Akuany through their adulthood. As a revolutionary leader rises to power – the self-proclaimed Mahdi, prophesied redeemer of Islam – Sudan begins to slip from the grasp of Ottoman rule, and everyone must choose a side. A scholar of the Qur’an, Yaseen feels beholden to stand against this false Mahdi, even as his choice splinters his family. Meanwhile, Akuany moves through her young adulthood and across the country alone, sold and traded from house to house, with Yaseen as her inconsistent lifeline. Everything each of them is striving for – love, freedom, safety – is all on the line in the fight for Sudan.
Through the voices of seven men and women whose fates grow inextricably linked, Aboulela’s latest novel illuminates a fraught and bloody reckoning with the history of a people caught in the crosshairs of imperialism. River Spirit is a powerful tale of corruption, coming of age, and unshakeable devotion – to a cause, to one’s faith, and to the people who become family.
A New York Times Editor’s Choice and Best Historical Fiction Book of the Year
A Booklist Top 10 Historical Fiction Book of 2023
“Dazzling… One of the great pleasures of River Spirit is listening as the novel tells us how to read it. The pace is swift, galloping over momentous events, stating profound changes with unsettling directness… Aboulela has written a novel of war, love, faith, womanhood and—crucially—the tussle over truthful public narratives.”—New York Times
“[A] kaleidoscopic portrait of late-19th-century Sudan.”—New York Times, A Best Historical Fiction Book of the Year
“A blazing historical epic of war, love, and revolution . . . A magnificent novel about the price of unwavering devotion and the inexhaustible pursuit for freedom.”—Los Angeles Review of Books
“Action-packed Aboulela casts a scrutinous and perceptive eye on the motives of religious leaders and colonial forces, and she layers the narrative with a rich blend of languages and cultures. This brims with drama and nuance.”—Publishers Weekly
“Rich and moving… captivating.”—Kirkus
“Historical novels are often most successful when they focus on ordinary people experiencing extraordinary times, and that is the case with Aboulela’s latest. Zamzam and Yaseen’s love story is moving and gripping, sweeping the reader along hoping that they will end up together against the odds… Highly recommended.”—Library Journal, starred review
“River Spirit is – like the rest of Aboulela’s oeuvre – flush with stunning, complex portraits of people.”—The Skinny (UK)
“Captivating… Aboulela unspools the fraught story of Sudan, as freedom and faith do battle.”—Daily Mail (UK)
“[Aboulela] explores themes of faith and conquest without compromising on rich characterization or compelling plot development. She also centralizes women and their experiences in a larger sociopolitical context that is most often viewed in terms of men’s lives… Aboulela reveals the thin lines that can demarcate religious zeal and patriotic fervor, social crusade and personal recklessness, as she creates a finely wrought and compellingly in-depth drama about a land and its people.”—Booklist, starred review
“A novel of extraordinary sympathy and insight… a wonderful achievement.”—Abdulrazak Gurnah, Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature
“River Spirit had me gripped from the first page. This is real history, imagined in splendid detail, a story of ordinary people caught in extraordinary times. The characters’ interwoven narratives create a book shaped into twists and turns all the way to its thrilling end. A triumph of storytelling.”—Aminatta Forna, author of Happiness and The Window Seat
“In rich, evocative detail, Aboulela captures one of the most important moments in Sudanese history. But ultimately, this is a story about people. Everyone—from Akuany to Yaseen to Musa to Fatima to Robert—reminded me of the hearts and minds affected by the winds of imperialism. You must read this.”—Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of Wench and Take My Hand
“Leila Aboulela weaves together strands of Sudan’s history in this fascinating and unforgettable tale. By far my favourite of all her works, Aboulela employs elegant, poetic prose to create yet another masterpiece. This is a story that demands to be read. It is an excellent novel.”—Goretti Kyomuhendo, author of Waiting
“Painted with the words of an artist who loves and understands their subject, this novel is a historical portrait of freedom. Aboulela skillfully draws the uncertain colours of what freedom means to different individuals in a Mahdist Sudan to the last full stop.”—Zukiswa Wanner, author of The Madams
“Aboulela has written a book for grown-ups, one whose complexity is born of compassion, that speaks more forcefully than a thousand opinion pieces… timeless.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“An absorbing novel… reminds us of the complexity of the web woven by those threads of faith, nationality, politics and history.”—New York Times Book Review
“A rich, multilayered story… compelling.”—Washington Post
“Radiant with historical detail and vivid descriptions.”—Los Angeles Review of Books
“Riveting… [a novel] about the wish and murmur of lives lived centuries ago—what they tell us and how we exalt them, long for them, look to them to make our existence sufferable and better still, interesting.”—Los Angeles Times
Excerpted from River Spirit © 2023 by Leila Aboulela. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
The river was her language. Eleven-year-old Akuany stood in the shallow, humming Nile, listening to what the water was saying, believing. Reeds moved in the breeze. The river smelled of fish; its surface was silk. Akuany pressed her feet in the sticky mud, looked down at the shifting cloth that covered her hips. The raised tribal decorations on her stomach were now in the water. She bent her knees, and her breasts became wet. They were uncomfortable these days, the areoles soft and stretched. Older boys pinched them and laughed even though it pained her. Women looked at her with sympathy. Motherless child, her toddler brother, Bol, perched on her hip. They thought her mature for her age, but here in the water she was carefree, teasing the fish because they were too slippery to catch. The river was a place to draw water and wash, to fish and set sail, and for her it was more, the spirit of who she was. The place that kept her safe when they raided the village.
On the bank she could see Yaseen, the young merchant from Khartoum, her father’s guest, sitting reading. Bol was squatting near him, reaching to clasp his ebony prayer beads. A wisp of smoke rose over the village, more than a wisp. She saw it, but it did not alarm her at first. Hitting her palms against the water, she could hear Bol babbling, the merchant saying something to him in return. The woman who was washing her clothes admonished her daughter. None of them heard the horses neighing, the huts catching fire, the screams of those who were speared and those who were shackled to be driven away to the slave markets farther north.
When the woman washing the clothes turned and saw the smoke, she cried out. She ran up the bank, anxious about her younger children, hurling herself toward danger. Yaseen, the merchant, called out to her, but she didn’t listen, and her daughter went with her too. Akuany and her brother stayed with Yaseen. He understood the meaning of the smoke. The three of them waited for hours. Akuany’s skin dried, and she held Bol on her lap. At first, she was soothed by the songs of the river. Then she felt hungry and Yaseen had no food. Her brother whined and Yaseen told him to be quiet. “Go to sleep, both of you,” he said. And they did. They curled up next to him and fell asleep with their stomachs rumbling.
Akuany had always liked Yaseen. He came from Khartoum to buy gum from her father, carrying back the balls in large baskets hitched to his camels. He came once a year after the rains stopped and the roads dried. When he was younger, he used to come with his father, but Akuany had only shadowy memories of the older man. Yaseen brought sweets for Akuany, and because he smiled and had a nice way of talking, their home would change in his presence. It would feel like feast days even though it wasn’t. Yaseen usually stayed with them a week but to Akuany it always felt longer. There was the excitement of preparing for his arrival. For days her father would pick or tap gum from the acacia trees that grew wild. How beautiful the gum looked, glistening in the sun! She had tasted it once and it got stuck to her teeth. There would be a special welcoming meal for the Khartoum merchant, which, now that her mother was gone, was cooked by the neighbors with the millet flour and vegetables brought by her father. After Yaseen finished eating, he would look up, his fingers still sticky with food and say, “Akuany will take me to the river.” He said it as if he could not go there on his own, as if he had forgotten the way. She would lead him, charged with pride. When she was younger, she chatted all the way. This time though she had been uncharacteristically shy. He did not go into the water with her. He never did. He would sit with a toothpick in his mouth or his prayer beads or book, the folio pages held between hard covers, which he was careful not to smudge with water or mud. He would gaze at the water or if it was late afternoon up at the sky, and often Akuany, playing in the water, would forget his presence.
Fearful, they spent the whole night at the river. The merchant kept saying, “Some of the raiders might still be there. They’ll take us too.” Then he would sigh and say, “Oh the loss.” Then he would pray. On the morning of the following day, he went back on his own. He was not gone long, but Bol would not stop crying. When Yaseen came back, he looked like he had been crying, too, but he had food with him. Sesame seeds, a bruised mango, and dried bread that the children gobbled while he sat away from them with his face in his hands. He told her not to go back with him to the village, and when she insisted, he said she must close her eyes. “Don’t look, don’t look, Akuany.” But she did look and saw things broken, upside down, distorted and in their distortions lopsided and looming up at her. Homes burnt to ashes, beddings and utensils smashed, livestock vanished. Healing powder knocked out of a horn, cracked mortar, grains of millet scattered on the ground. The elderly roamed like ghosts in the remaining smoke. The disabled and ill tossed aside. Not a single beautiful white cow to be found. All the vitality gone or going, for it was not safe to remain in such a vulnerable spot. The raiders might come back for the remaining able-bodied. She choked on the smoke, gulped fire; tears ran down her face. Yaseen kept saying, “Close your eyes, don’t look!” She closed them and still saw horrors, could not keep them closed. Opened them to see the worst thing of all. In the epicenter of the devastation was her father, splayed flat in front of their hut, speared to death.
Yaseen buried their father and took charge. Akuany and Bol were his responsibility now. He would take them back with him to Khartoum. A month ago—a week ago—such a prospect would have filled her with adventurous delight. To be with him on a journey, to be taken to his home, which must be grander than hers. His city, which was bigger. To be with his family eating the same food. A day ago, she might have been beaming, but now she could hardly understand what he was saying. His voice, his orders, reached her from a faraway place, his face close to hers repeating her name. “You must stop crying and look after your brother. We must pack what we can and get out of here!” Where is this, where is that? In one surreal moment he found her mother’s jewelry and pushed bracelets up her arms and around her ankles, strung beads around her neck. She would sink and he would yank her back. She would drift, and he would pull. She would drown if he lost his grip.