My rating: 4.5/5 stars
Release Date: September 25, 2012
Publisher: Doubleday Canada
Thank you Brie of Eat Books for giving me a copy of this book.
The Magic of Saida tells the haunting story of Kamal, a successful Canadian doctor who, in middle age and after decades in North America, decides to return to his homeland of East Africa to find his childhood sweetheart, Saida. Kamal’s journey is motivated by a combination of guilt, hope, and the desire to unravel the mysteries of his childhood–mysteries compounded by the fact that Kamal is the son of an absent Indian father from a well-to-do family and a Swahili African mother of slave ancestry. Through a series of flashbacks, we watch Kamal’s early years in the ancient coastal town of Kilwa, where he grows up in a world of poverty but also of poetry, sustained by his friendship with the magical Saida.
This world abruptly ends when Kamal is sent away by his mother to live with his father’s family in the city. There, the academically gifted boy grows up as a “dark Indian,” eventually going to university and departing for Canada. Left behind to her traditional fate is Saida, now a beautiful young woman. Decades later, Kamal’s guilt pulls him back to Kilwa . . . where we discovers what happened to Saida during a harrowing night of sinister rites. This complex, revelatory, sweeping and shocking book, is a towering testament to the magical literary powers of M.G. Vassanji.
This book humbled me, repeatedly.
When I read the blurb and saw “East Africa,” I thought, great! I just did a bunch of research on East African culture (for work,) so I am gonna get ALL the cultural references. I was hardly past the first page when I realized that, um, no. First of all, my research was on Somalia and Ethiopia, and East Africa encompasses way more than just those countries. Continue reading
I read Americas right after a three-month slog through The Idiot, and didn’t know what to expect. I knew it was a collection of short stories, with one for each country in North, Central and South America. I didn’t expect to find magical realism. I associate magical realism with South American authors, and with epic novels that follow a family across generations. It was surprising to find it here, though the opening quote from Jorge Luis Borges should have been my first clue.
For those who didn’t study magical realism in school (thanks Mr. Jefferies of Grade 12 IB English), here’s the wikipedia definition:
…an aesthetic style or genre of fiction in which magical elements blend with the real world. The story explains these magical elements as real occurrences, presented in a straightforward manner that places the “real” and the “fantastic” in the same stream of thought.
Americas starts with Canada and works south. Canada was my favourite, because it was so familiar. Those “A Part of Our Heritage” commercials play a prominent part. I had vivid memories of sitting on my couch at home, watching The Simpsons after school. A nice, safe feeling.
From there, things get weird. Magically weird! By the time I got to Venezuela, I knew something was up. It starts with “In Venezuela, all the children are adopted from South Korea.” In my sleep deprived brain, I actually wondered for a moment if there was some adoption agreement between these countries. Each chapter begins this way; “In [country], [absurd statement].” There’s something really disarming about such a simple structure, and such short stories, taking on the magical realism genre. Chile’s story mixes real life (the Chilean miners who got stuck underground) with the fantastic (window washers stuck in the sky at the same time) and gets it just right.
The stories are really, really short. They’re more like scenes or maybe dream sequences. You will finish this book in one sitting.
Read this if you’re a fan of magical realism. Read this if you want to try magical realism, but are scared of long, translated-from-Spanish family sagas (I don’t blame you.) Four stars!
Further reading: Here are my favorite magical realism books from the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die:
Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This is in my top five books EVER. I have read this multiple times, and will read it many more. It’s that good. See my post about it here.
100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I was forced to read this in grade 12. Everyone in this book has the same name, which is a challenge, but it’s worth it.
Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel. I read this last year in my bid to make it to 100 of the 1,001 books read. It was much quicker, easier, and less dense than the Marquez books, but still has that elusive magical quality.
The House if the Spirits, Isabel Allende. I think I read this for high school English. Mr. Jefferies was kind of into South American literature. This was my least favourite of the bunch, but upon reading the plot summary, I think I need to revisit it. Lots of pregnancy and child birth symbolism!