Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

River Spirit

by 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

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 320
  • Publication Date March 12, 2024
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-6275-5
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $17.00
  • Imprint Grove Hardcover
  • Page Count 320
  • Publication Date March 07, 2023
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-6066-9
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $27.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date March 07, 2023
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-6067-6
  • US List Price $27.00

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.

Tags Literary

Praise for River Spirit:

A New York Times Editor’s Choice and Best Historical Fiction Book of the Year
Longlisted for the Jhalak Prize
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 Wannerauthor of The Madams

Praise for The Kindness of Enemies:

“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.

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide for River Spirit by Je Banach

1. The novel is set during the Mahdist War in nineteenth-century Sudan. How does the author challenge previous narratives of this period of Sudanese history via her literary choices? For instance, consider the narrators of River Spirit. Why do you think the author chose to employ multiple narrators as well as shifting points of view, writing variously in first, second, and third person? Most importantly, whose voices have been centered in the novel?

2. Explore the author’s depiction of women in the novel. Why do you think Aboulela opened the novel with the scene in which Rabiha sets out to warn the Mahdi of Rashid’s impending attack? How does the prologue serve as an introduction to the complex role of women in nineteenth-century Muslim society and the obstacles they faced as well as a reflection of their dreams and spirit?

3. Where else in the book do readers find women, specifically Muslim women,  represented like Rabiha—as heroes, martyrs, warriors, and rebels who have “transcended shyness, politeness, anxiety. Even femininity” (8)? Discuss.

4. What reasons does Yaseen give for wanting to study at university rather than continuing on in his life as a merchant? What does he say are some of the things that he is learning via his daily study of Allah’s words? In chapter two, what does Yaseen say “is instilled in [those studying at the university] every day” (29) and why is it so important both for him as an individual and for society?

5. “No one, sane and able, when offered freedom would not take it,” says Fatimah (95). How does the novel set up a dialogue around the theme of freedom? Consider, for instance, the portrayal of power dynamics including depictions of the fraught interplay between colonized people and their colonizer, enslaved people and those who enslave them, and even men and women. Who in the novel has freedom? Who is trying to acquire it? And how does a lack of freedom influence the decision-making and subsequent risk-taking of those who do not have it?

6. What various kinds of freedom do the characters seek and how do they go about trying to access these? Are any of the characters successful? Why or why not?

7. Who claims to be the Mahdi and what leads so many Sudanese people to follow him? How does the author’s portrayal of the revolution and a drive towards independence ultimately illuminate the complex circumstances that can lead to fanaticism? For instance, what were some of the historical and economic circumstances that enabled the so-called Mahdi to come to power? Though complicated, what did this figure help the Sudanese people to achieve?

8. Why do you think Aboulela chose to tell the story of the Mahdi from the perspective of his follower Musa and other characters rather than the so-called Mahdi himself? What does Musa mean when he says that the Mahdist uprising began “with games that [the] youngsters played” (44)? How does Musa function within the novel as a representative of the Mahdi’s followers and how do his reflections and admissions in particular give readers greater insight into the motivations that led to the Mahdist war and the revolution?

9. The characters are eventually forced to choose sides: follow the Mahdi or fight against him and his followers—people who are also their family, friends, and neighbors. Which sides do the various characters choose and what impact does this have on their families? Were you surprised by any of the characters’ choices? How, for instance, is Yaseen’s family impacted by these decisions? What sides do Yaseen’s sister Halima and friend Isma’il choose and what are the implications of this?

10. Explore the relationship between Akuany/Zamzam and Yaseen. How do the two meet and how does their relationship evolve over the course of the novel? Why do you think Akuany/Zamzam uses language of belonging when speaking about Yaseen despite her experiences as an enslaved woman? When Yaseen is finally able to free her, why does she refuse to go with him? What makes her change her mind? What might their relationship ultimately reveal about love and freedom?

11. What do the chapters narrated by Robert help to expose about truth in art and historical storytelling? Why does Robert, a Scottish artist, want to paint Akuany/Zamzam and how does he go about this? How does this open up a dialogue about ethics in artmaking? How does Akuany/Zamzam feel about being Robert’s subject and how does he respond to this? What does Robert think is “at stake” (161)? What ultimately becomes of his paintings of Akuany/Zamzam?

12. Why does Fatimah keep much of her life secret from her family? What kinds of secrets does she keep and what motivates her to do so? For example, why doesn’t she reveal her identity to Akuany/Zamzam and why does she choose to withhold information about Akuany/Zamzam’s whereabouts from her son Yaseen? How does she benefit by trying to remain either silent or invisible?

13. Although successful for a great while, why do the Mahdists ultimately fail? Speaking to Salha, Fatimah asks: “Does it matter . . . if the man is fake or true? Surely peace and prosperity are all we want” (178). How does the novel ultimately answer Fatimah’s question?

14. Explore the role of faith in the book. In what do the characters of River Spirit place their faith? To what do they remain loyal? How do their convictions help them but also harm them? Throughout the novel, even Yaseen grapples with what is moral and what is right, asking questions such as whether it is acceptable to lie or to deny one’s religious faith in order to survive. When it comes to his own decision whether or not join the Mahdists despite his conviction that the Mahdi is false, what ultimate decision does he make? Do you think he made the right choice? Explain.

15. Who was Charles Gordon? Why do you think the author chose to assign Gordon his own chapter and to write his chapter in second person unlike any other chapter? Where was Gordon from and why was he sent to Sudan? Why does he say that he “admires [his] enemies” (219) and wishes he was leading them? What does he mean when he says that he thinks he “can be a catalyst” (220)? Is he successful? Why or why not?

16. Why do you think Aboulela concluded the book with a series of letters written by Salha including a final one to Akuany/Zamzam? “I will not know anytime soon,” Salha writes to her son, “if I did the right thing or not” (286). What sacrifices does Salha make for what she perceives as a greater good? Do you think that she did the right thing? Were you surprised by her choices? Why or why not?

17. Early in the novel Yaseen says, “Justice paves way for the light” (33). “Without it,” he says, “the strong squash the weak, men tyrannize women, the rich steal from the poor, and corruption ravages the land” (29). How does the novel create a dialogue around the themes of justice and injustice? What are some examples of both presented throughout the novel? At the story’s end, has one ultimately triumphed over the other? Explain.

18. Why do you think the author chose to title the book River Spirit? What meaning does the river have for Akuany/Zamzam? What do you think she means when she says at the start of the book that “the river was her language” (11)? How does the river and Akuany/Zamzam’s return to the river bring readers full circle? What might “river spirit” represent symbolically? Which of the characters in the novel would you say best represents or encapsulates this spirit?

19. Was there one character or one voice in River Spirit that resonated with you more than the others? If so, who and why? What surprised you most about the characters in the novel? How did they challenge your expectations or lead to new revelations or a new understanding of this period in history, Muslim life and identity, or other major themes covered in the book?

Suggestions for Further Reading

The Longing of the Dervish by Hammour Ziada
Edo’s Souls by Stella Gaitano
Ghost Season by Fatin Abbas
The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam
Segu by Maryse Condé
The Messiah of Darfur by Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin
The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan
Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
The Slave Girl by Buchi Emecheta
They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky by Benjamin Ajak
Thirteen Months of Sunrise by Rania Mamoun
The Wide Void by Malkat al-Dar Muhammad