By Katy Goodwin-Bates
Abdulrazak Gurnah’s latest novel is simultaneously grand and intimate in scale; set initially in 1970s Zanzibar after independence and revolution, Gravel Heart is focused on Salim, a young boy whose father moves out of the family home. Convinced that his father never wanted him, Salim struggles to understand the complexities of his parents’ relationship and, when offered the opportunity to leave Zanzibar for London to live with his diplomat uncle, he takes it. Documenting the difficulties of the immigrant experience, Gurnah empathetically portrays Salim’s struggles with a new culture, the weight of expectation and his mysterious family history.
My father did not want me. I came to that knowledge when I was quite young, even before I understood what I was being deprived of and a long time before I could guess the reason for it. In some ways not understanding was a mercy. If this knowledge had come to me when I was older, I might have known how to live with it better but that would probably have been by pretending or hating.
Salim’s relationship with his father is central to the first and last acts of the novel, with the older man’s abandonment of the family home taking on tremendous significance from the beginning. Salim is too young to understand why his mother continues to make his father’s lunch every day, taking it to him in his new home until the responsibility passes to the son; it’s an act shrouded in pathos, with his father’s aloof silence initially appearing to be a lack of care but ultimately clearly the manifestation of immense sadness. I didn’t fully grasp the significance of these moments until later in the novel, such were their subtlety and grace.
Aside from the father figure, there are plenty of intriguing characters and backstories to be found in Gravel Heart. Salim’s uncle Amir is an engagingly self-centred creation, apparently seeking to help his nephew through relocating him to London but showing no desire to assist him in emotional terms; his hostility to Salim’s father is a sign of the coldness that is slowly revealed. A mysteriously conceived sister is too young to impact the early part of the novel but becomes a person of interest later. Notably, however, in amongst these engaging characters, Salim himself stands out only for his passivity; his position as narrator and apparent protagonist is really something of a red herring, with the heart of the story not actually anything to do with him. Things just seem to happen around Salim, without him exerting any real influence over them, which makes his narrative perspective somewhat frustrating; the more interesting parts of Gravel Heart are those in which another voice takes over, explaining their history to Salim rather than giving him scope to relay it to the reader.
As a novel about the immigrant experience, Gravel Heart offers insight in terms of a sense of isolation and struggle with one’s own identity, which is most compellingly depicted in Salim’s efforts to learn the truth of his parents’ breakup and the events both preceding and following it. It is this aspect of family saga which most engaged me when reading the novel; Salim’s lack of knowledge for the majority of the novel tends to make it seem as if he’s only telling half a story, and it’s the less interesting half. With its last stage reveals, Gravel Heart finally rewards the reader; for me, it’s a shame more of the novel wasn’t concerned with these intimate matters of the heart.