From the middle of the last century comes a sentimental story from British-occupied Sudan. Lyrics Alley, by Sudanese author Leila Aboulela, chronicles the shifting fortunes of an affluent family under siege.
Nur is the younger son of the prominent Abuzeid dynasty. His mother Waheeba is an illiterate, provincial Sudanese woman and they live in Khartoum, a dusty city of narrow alleys and donkey-drawn carts. His father Mahmoud Bey, a successful industrialist, keeps a second home in modern Cairo with his stylish, younger Egyptian wife, Nabilah.
Mahmoud falls sick and is house-bound in Khartoum. Nabilah and her daughter arrive, causing tension between the two wives.
Nur is a handsome, intelligent youth and is expected to take over the family business instead of his irresponsible older brother. He is in love with his cousin.
However, Nur gets injured and the family is thrown into turmoil.
During his recovery, he starts to write poems and lyrics.
In between the moving lyrics penned by Nur, the setting moves from Sudan to Egypt and the UK, giving a broad view of Sudanese life during the waning years of colonialism and into early Independence.
However, the change in location means that sometimes the story seems to stray in several directions.
The narrative is from the viewpoint of the key characters who are obviously flawed, but remain appealing. The family struggles to redefine itself against unexpected misfortune, inevitable modernisation and women wanting more prominence in a patriarchal society.
Aboulela does not delve too deeply into the political climate of the time, which creates a sense of an historical detachment that mirrors the attitude of the closeted Abuzeids. Instead she focuses on family, love, faith and personal emancipation.
The story also questions the place of art in a society where social divisions are inflexible. Egypt was undoubtedly the more progressive of the two countries, but the story overstates the inferiority of Sudan.
This is an emotionally engaging narrative and Aboulela, a devout Muslim, presents the Islamic faith in a sensitive, non-stereotypical manner.
At its heart, the book parallels her life. Aboulela was born in Cairo and raised in Khartoum; she now lives in Scotland. Her mother was Egyptian and her father Sudanese, and she attended a Catholic school.
Her uncle was the renowned Sudanese poet Hassan Awad Aboulela who started writing poetry following an accident and a broken engagement.
Aboulela was the first African winner of the Caine Prize in 2000. Lyrics Alley was the Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize.