Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 29, 2021

The Country of Others, by Leïla Slimani, translated by Sam Taylor

I’m not sure why I reserved this at the library; and I’m also not sure why I persisted with it when it was a bit of a slog to read.  Was it because I’d never read anything set in Morocco before? Nope, I read four: Desert by Nobel Laureate JMG Le Clezio, translated by C. Dickson; The Storyteller of Marrakesh by Indian author Joydeep Roy-Battacharya; and two by Australian authors: Watch Out for Me by Sylvia Johnson, and Closer to Stone by Simon Cleary.  Maybe it was because I thought it was time to read an author who was Moroccan?

The blurb sounds interesting.

After the Liberation, Mathilde leaves France to join her husband in Morocco. But life here is unrecognisable to this brave and passionate young woman.

Suffocated by the heat of the Moroccan climate, by her loneliness on the farm, by the mistrust she inspires as a foreigner, and by their lack of money, Mathilde grows restless.

As violence threatens and Morocco’s own struggle for independence grows daily, Mathilde and Amine’s refusal to take sides sees them and their family at odds with their own desire for freedom.  How can Mathilde — a woman whose life is dominated by the decisions of men — hold her family together in a world that is being torn apart?

The trouble is, it reads like the family history it is, turned into a rather long-winded novel.  (There are 313 pages and this is only Volume One).  The intent is worthy: Mathilde’s struggle for self-determination in a patriarchal society is an analogy with Morocco’s struggle against colonialism under the French.  But it’s a messy analogy because Mathilde is French, and thus her desire for freedom comes from her French background and the independence that she had in the Resistance.  Her ideas about feminism and autonomy come from an ‘external’ culture, and the implications of this are amplified by the extensive and often brutal commentary about how backward Morocco was in the postwar period when the novel is set.

Odd bits of detail are disconcerting: puzzling irrelevances break up the flow of the writing for no apparent purpose.  This paragraph prefaces Mathilde intervention in her niece Selma’s rebellious behaviour.

When Mathilde reached the old hobnailed door, she grabbed the knocker and banged it twice, very hard.  Yasmine opened it — she’d lifted up her skirts and Mathilde could see that her black calves were covered in curly hairs.  It was almost ten in the morning but the house was quiet.  She could hear the purring of the cats stretched out in the courtyard and the slop of the wet mop that the maid was using to clean the floor.  Yasmine watched in astonishment as Mathilde took off her djellaba, tossed her headscarf onto a chair and ran upstairs.  Yasmine coughed so hard that she spat a thick, greenish wad of mucus into the well.   (p.90)

Apart from the fact that this is a bad case of Tell Everything, why does Yasmine lift up her skirts, and what are we meant to infer from the sight of those curly hairs? And how does Yasmine from the doorstep cough her disgusting mucus into the well?

Here’s another one, chosen at random:

(Previous paragraphs do not explain why she is not wearing her shoes when she arrives.  Maybe she drove there barefoot?)

She put her shoes back on and climbed the stairs that led to the post office.  A smiling woman greeted her at the counter.  ‘Mulhouse, France,’ Mathilde explained.  Next she headed to the main room, where the hundreds of post office boxes were located.  Little brass doors, each one with a number on it, covered the high walls.  She stopped next to box number 25: the same number as her year of birth, she’d said to Amine, who was always indifferent to this kind of remark.  She took the little key out of her pocket and inserted it into the lock, but it didn’t turn.  She took it out and put it in again but still nothing happened and the box wouldn’t open.  Mathilde repeated the same actions with increasing impatience, and her annoyance was soon making people stare.  Was this woman stealing letters sent to her husband by another woman?  Or was she trying to take revenge on her lover by opening his post office box?  An employee walked up to her slowly, like a zookeeper who had to return an animal to its cage.  He was a very young man with red hair and a protruding jawline.  Mathilde thought him ridiculous and ugly with his enormous feet and the pompous look on his face.  (p.159)

Seriously, half a page about a key that doesn’t work?  Describing post office boxes??

The Country of Others explores race, class, interpersonal conflict and domestic violence in the context of a mixed race marriage, and also ignorance, superstition and education in domestic and agricultural settings.  The personal gets political when family members take different positions in the struggle against colonialism.  But the story gets bogged down in superfluous detail and a narrative that seems hidebound by its origins in family history.  I won’t be reading Volumes 2 and 3…

Other reviews: Tessa Hadley in The Guardian liked it more than I did.  Mary O’Sullivan in the Irish Independent acknowledges that Slimani’s style takes a bit of getting used to…

Author: Leïla Slimani
Title: The Country of Others (le pays des autres)
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Publisher: Faber, 2021, first published 2020
ISBN: 9780571361625, pbk., 313 pages
Source: Bayside Library


Responses

  1. Hi Lisa! Enjoyed the review, which confirms my impressions from a few others I’d read. I had read Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny, which I thought was very good, so I’m afraid I binged on this one (i.e., bought a copy) as soon as it was published, largely because I’d never read anything set in Morocco or written by anyone with a connection to the country. I admit, I did have a few qualms about the family history thing, as I think it can sidetrack even a very good writer. I’ll probably still read this, at some point, but I’m afraid it’s sunk several levels in my mountainous TBR.

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    • LOL I imagine this book plummeting down like an elevator that’s out of control!

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  2. Probably not for me – thank you!

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  3. For bread alone my favourite book from Morocco

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    • I will look out for that one…

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  4. Oof, I didn’t much like the writing style in The Perfect Nanny either (but it was perfect to read on a plane), so that’ll be a no for me as well…

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    • Oh, this would be no good on a plane, you wouldn’t be able to keep track of what was going on.

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  5. When this book was released I kept picking it up in bookstores torn over whether to buy it or not.

    I read her book Lullaby (which I think was published in North America as The Perfect Nanny) and was appalled by the story for all kinds of reasons. I read her next one Adele, a shocking account of a woman who has rough sex with a series of strangers, but found it to be a psychologically rich novel full of insights about the human condition and modern life.

    But this new one doesn’t sound like it’s for me.

    She’s obviously highly regarded in France, though. Wasn’t she made a personal representative of Emmanuel Macron for some kind of organisation? I have a vague recollection of seeing that on the news when I lived in the UK and I’m too lazy to check Google as I’m writing this in the queue for my morning coffee ☕️ 😃

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    • I did wonder as I was reading it whether the style derived from a Moroccan version of storytelling, because I’ve encountered a similarly discursive style in other Middle Eastern Lit, but it just seemed clumsy to me.
      Am I right in thinking that your days of torrid heat are easing now?

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      • I think we have one day of reprieve (it will be a lovely 28C today) and then it’s heading back into the 30s and high 30s just in time to return to work.

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        • Brutal…

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          • Now I’m not a swimmer / beach person but today I bought some kit to go swimming in! I’m gearing up for more hot temps this weekend 🤪🔥

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            • I’m not a beach person either, but you have to have a game plan for if the power goes off and the AC isn’t working.

              Liked by 1 person

  6. Well… you finished reading it… um… I wouldn’t have done that! Not my thing at ALL.

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    • I’m still always reluctant to give up on a book… I have to really dislike it to do that. Plus, I did want to see what happened with the uprising against independence, but in the end it turned out to be offstage and viewed through the domestic prism.

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      • I know… there is always a pang of guilt when I stop reading a book. But it is getting easier as I get older!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Ah, that’s a shame. The themes of the novel sound so rich and interesting, but that key snippet was enough to put me off! Thanks for all the great posts this year, Lisa, and all the best for 2022!

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  8. Oh that’s disappointing, I was looking forward to this story thanks to its Moroccan setting. But I wasn’t taken by her earlier books (just reading a page or two and deciding they were not for me), thought one with an historical fiction/family history element might be more my thing though….

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    • She’s being marketed in the Elena Ferrante camp, so if you like that kind of overwrought domestic conflict, you might like it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • No, I was one of the few who didn’t get the whole Ferrante thing.

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        • I liked the first couple for the novelty value but then I was well and truly over it.

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