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Anne-Marie Drosso: In Their Father's Country
Following the 2007 release of Cairo Stories, a collection of short stories on Egypt, author Anne-Marie Drosso presents her first novel In Their Father’s Country, which dives deep into its characters’ emotions as well as the country’s complex history.
The story begins in Cairo in 1924 with Claire and Gabrielle Sahli, teenage sisters from mixed Egyptian and European ethnicity. They are coming to terms with their father’s recent death, and though their personalities can’t be more different, they have one thing in common: their deep love for Egypt.
The novel focuses on Claire’s character: the reader follows her disappointments and triumphs throughout her ninety-six years. Her personal ups and downs follow a pattern that is somehow related to Egypt’s political developments during one of its most complicated times.
Most of the events in Claire’s life– or at least the ones that are so elaborately depicted– are unbelievably sad;, from the very first page till the last. Death is the main focus of almost all of the novel’s characters. Yet, the very profound and emotional descriptions of the death scenes do not dispel the questions that the reader may have about characters that weren’t developed enough and elaborated on before their deaths.
The fact that the author has lived in Egypt comes across through the graphic descriptions and accurate grasp of the complexities of Egyptian society; in fact, Drosso lived in Egypt for the first twenty-two years of her life. Although the author writes in English, she lists the dialogues in the precise way that Egyptians converse in, and she describes places with a clear familiarity. She truly and exceptionally manages to capture the Egyptian soul in her writing, which makes In Their Father’s Country an interesting read for someone familiar with or intrigued by the uniquely Egyptian atmosphere.
In Their Father’s Country is both complicated and simple: there are no major events that change the pace and sequence of the story, and there aren’t really any surprising twists either; yet the author maintains a firm grip on the reader’s attention. Every word in this page-turner seems to evoke an emotion in the reader.
In Their Father’s Country is an insightful portrayal of human emotions, and it takes us back on a nostalgic journey to the golden ages of Egypt. As the story is written from the perspective of the main characters, readers can easily relate to them as real people who have really experienced everything described in In Their Father’s Country.
The structure of the book is difficult to map out. While the story is chronological in the bigger sense, events tend to jump back and forth, where each child slave’s full story is only revealed the further you read. We do not know exactly how either of them came to be until to the end.
Other distractions from the story line are religious references. Using Biblical references, verses from the Quran and the history of Moses and Adam, Thompson uses mythical tales to reflect on the characters at hand and the trials they face. He even has a character and element that bears an uncanny representation of Noah and his arc.
Apart from his use of history and religious fables, Thompson also tells a very aggressive, and often times, dark story. Dodola is married off as a child and upon turning to prostitution is subjected to rape and mistreatment. Zam is a slave who sacrifices his manhood out of a loss of a better life. They are both abused time and time again and having their misfortunes sketched out for the eye to witness adds a shocking element to the novel.
This brings us to what makes the novel so wonderful at the same time; the illustrations. The detailing of the sketches and the exemplary hand-work at play is extremely commendable. Action scenes have your eyes rushing through the pages as frantically as one seen on a TV screen. The beauty in the details is endless; the graphics are looming and grand but also sensual and precise. There is a lot of calligraphy incorporated, which makes for an interesting experience for those who can read Arabic.
Another interesting aspect is his combination of the new and the old. Though the story takes place in today’s world, a lot of the prevalent ideologies are from nomadic times; primitive and beastly.
There is indeed something quite poetic about the story he tells – and the manner in which it is told – regardless of the gruesome, harsh aspects; on the contrary, it is these parts that make the novel that much more meaningful.
Born and raised in Texas, Gretchen McCullough's teaching career has taken her to Egypt, Turkey and Japan; currently, McCullough teaches writing in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo.
Released earlier this year, her latest publication is titled ‘Shahrazad’s Tooth’; a compilation of short stories revolving around a host of eccentric individuals and their experiences in Cairo. A large bulk of the stories are driven by the thoughts rummaging through the characters minds and, more often than not, they transpire to be both charming and relatable.
‘Shahrazad’s Tooth’ has a colourful team of characters with strong presence, charisma and an air of familiarity. Digging deeper into their personal lives and problems, her writing style is distinct, bringing an American charm and non-linearity to her stories, which builds a pleasant intricacy.
With many of the characters connected by a single building in Garden City, McCullough allots the main characters in her stories as small cameos in others, spreading the characters' presence and allowing for further development.
In ‘A Little Honey and a Little Sunlight’, we are given insight into the raging nature of Professor Gary by his dying neighbour, Joe Pulaski - a poet - reminiscing his days spent living in Cairo. Many pages later in ‘Pure Water’, we find ourselves reading from the eyes of Dr Gary as he spends time with his bulky Greek friend, Kolombos, in a mental asylum before the uprising of January 25th. The title story, meanwhile, sees two main protagonists; journalist and teacher, Mary Beth Somers, and her dentist, Dr Samy. Far from sappy, the two fall into a love which avoids the overt romantic notions seen in cliched literature, despite ending on a melancholic note.
Aside from the characters, Cairo as a city is portrayed as an integral player in the stories. On regular occasions, vivid descriptions of popular places in the city are given, such as El Horreya, Windsor Bar, the Gezirah Club and Koshari Abou Tarek. Having visited all these places ourselves, it's obvious that McCullough has immersed herself in the city, and amongst its people, well beyond the point of a touristic escapade. She’s become a sort of semi-native, in touch with Cairene culture, but maintains enough outside insight to give a new perspective to those who’ve been living in the city for too long.
With its mix of emotions and interesting character troupe, ‘Shahrazad’s Tooth’ promises an entertaining, comforting read for both locals and foreigners alike.