Hola! It’s been a while! I know I have been neglecting this blog but that’s what happens when you’re juggling millions of projects all due at the same time. I am back now and will hopefully write new reviews more often!
Name: Au Commencement Etait La Mer
Author: Maissa Bey
Publication Date: 1996
Plot Summary: Nadia is a young Algerian woman who dreams of love, life and the sea. She falls in love and has to answer to an oppressive society and a misogynistic brother brainwashed by religious extremism. The book is a forbidden love story set in a violent 90’s Algeria.
I tried to love this book, I really did. Maissa Bey has a very poetic writing style; she floats between metaphors to describe a somber Algiers torn apart by extremism and hate. But once you take away the fancy descriptions, all you’re left with is a stale tale that has been told over and over again.
Nadia spends the first half of the book describing her love for the sea, by the time we meet Karim (her lover), we’re left trying to remember what this story is supposed to be about in first place. I was really disappointed at how their relationship developed and met its clichéd end. After nights of passionate love, Karim tells Nadia that his mother is against the two of them marrying and so their relationship must come to an end. A disgusted Nadia leaves him, only to find out weeks later that she is pregnant. She undergoes an illegal abortion, and slowly spirals into depression. Not even her dramatic end could salvage the weak plot of this book. Honestly, the whole story could have been told in less than its 147 pages.
It seems that the author’s extensive use of narrative techniques came at the cost of plot and character development. Every character, including Nadia herself, felt like a shadow of what they were supposed to be. Nadia, a young woman in an oppressive society, is actually supposed to represent Algeria; a young, beautiful country whose own children turned against. But she is very bleak, there is nothing that makes her stand out and truly touch the reader. She is first betrayed by Karim, who is too weak to fight traditions and then she is left to the mercy of her brother who, in turn, is a symbol of extremism and ignorance.
There was almost no dialogue in the book, which made each of these characters extremely forgettable. The only character that somewhat left an impression was Djamel; Nadia’s brother. An obscure figure until the very end,all we knew about him as the story progressed was that he was slowly changing under the influence of religious extremism. Maissa Bey describes him as a silent plague that slowly engulfes Nadia’s life.
I am very interested in the civil war that took place in 90’s Algeria, so I had really high hopes when I bought this book. Maissa Bey had the chance to explore important themes that played, and are still playing, a role in the Algerian society. Unfortunately, the plot and characters were too weak to leave an impact and truly send the message she wanted to send. I wanted to read about characters with vivid personalities, I wanted to feel like I was with them as they faced their demons, unfortunately I was severely disappointed.
If you enjoy reading dramatic and fancy descriptions that serve no purpose to the actual plot, you will love this book, but if you would rather have a book with strong character and plot development, skip it. Trust me.