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Review: Page-turner depicting coming-of-age in Zanzibar & UK

INTIMATE: Author Abdulrazak Gurnah allows us access to the dark recesses of his character's minds (photo credit: Whitstable Literary Festival)

OFTEN, THE mark of a good read is the feeling of wanting more once you’ve finished the book. Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Gravel Heart delivers on this indicator - and the page count is by no means meagre.

Largely a first-person account from main character Salim, Gurnah sometimes shifts to the viewpoint of Salim’s beloved and beautiful mother Saida before her sad demise and to that of his broken-hearted father Masud; who seems to have passed his awkwardness onto young Salim.

Gurnah allows us the delicious privilege of observing Salim throughout his childhood, which is spent in Zanzibar, the muted anger and confusion of his teens as well as his adult life in an England which is mostly strange. We travel with Salim right-up until his return to Africa where he gladly connects with the estranged Masud in a way he hadn’t dreamt possible.

Highfalutin language isn’t necessary for Gravel Heart to be impactful - tales of the past passed between generations of Salim’s family and introspective musings are mostly simple and almost reminiscent of a ‘dear diary’ style. The beauty of this simplicity is appreciated even more as Salim gets older and slightly adjusts his language, which is befitting of the literature student he becomes in Brighton.

His new-found independence as a flat-sharer allows us an insight into the loneliness and disconnectedness that comes with travelling from one country to another and the friendships that fade away with each move to multiple new homes. The reality of making a living whilst studying become poignant after the sharp exit Salim is forced to make from his uncle’s luxury London home.

Salim’s emotional exploration of himself and the sordid secrets of his elders comes to a progressive head during conversations with Masud just before the old man makes an exit.

Gravel Heart is available to purchase nationwide now.

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