Natasha Wilson has done everything she can to jettison the less mainstream parts of her identity – leaving behind her real last name, her father’s Muslim faith, and trading her birth country of Sudan for Scotland. As part of her willingness to conform, the college professor volunteered to be the member of her university whose duty it is to report suspected radicalized students to the authorities.
But a student, his mom, and an antique scimitar threaten to undo her careful deletions in The Kindness of Enemies, Caine Prize winner Leila Aboulela’s most ambitious novel to date.
Since her first novel, “The Translator,” a reimagining of “Jane Eyre” between a Muslim secretary and her agnostic boss, Aboulela has used fiction as a way to explore questions of faith and identity. In fact, she has said that it was the “culture shock” of moving to Scotland from Sudan that turned her into a writer.
“I found myself praying in a place that had stopped praying,” Aboulela told a standing-room- only audience at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in 2012. “One day … I tried to write a letter to the editor. Fiction came out instead.”
“The Kindness of Enemies,” her fifth novel, is her most complex, nuanced letter yet. Aboulela moves surefootedly over potential chasms as the plot shifts between Natasha’s story and the real life tale of a ransomed boy raised in exile, a captured Georgian princess, and the charismatic leader of a 19th-century rebellion against imperialist Russia.
Natasha’s student Osama “Oz” Raja and his mother, Malak, are descendants of Imam Shamil, who launched successful campaigns in the Caucasus against the czar’s army for more than a decade. They inherited his scimitar, which Malak, an actress stuck in roles like a witch in “Macbeth” and a mom in a “Conan the Barbarian” remake, jokes that she’ll take it to “Antiques Roadshow” if she ever finds herself penniless. Natasha, who is doing research on Shamil, travels to their home to see the artifact, but finds herself drawn to his descendants instead.
“What I like best about his days is the certainty. Everything was clear cut,” says Oz of his ancestor. “Shamil and his people were the goodies; the Russians were the baddies. The Caucasus belonged to the Muslims, the tsar’s army were the invaders.”
Of course, history only looks simple from a distance, and over the course of “The Kindness of Enemies,” Aboulela does her best to confound those expectations.
The second part of her novel opens in 1839, when Shamil’s oldest son, Jamaleldin, is taken hostage by the czar’s army. Instead of being thrown in prison, he is raised as a courtier and develops a taste for music, theater, dance, and rich living – all of which are verboten in his father’s spartan religious kingdom. An outsider with one foot in both worlds, Jamaleldin develops the uncomfortable ability to see from both adversaries’ perspectives.
“The Russians believed the Chechens were wily and suspicious,” Jamaleldin thinks. “The Chechens believed the Russians were aggressive and treacherous. They were both right, they were both wrong.”
A decade later, to get his son back, Shamil takes Princess Anna Elinichna and her son captive. As the granddaughter of the last king of Georgia, Anna, while outraged and afraid for herself and her son, finds herself involuntarily sympathetic to the warrior fighting to keep his mountain people free.
Both the Russian emperor and the “barbarian” chieftain treat their hostages with their own idea of honor. But their courtesies, however sincerely meant, do little to spare Jamaleldin and Anna, both of whom are so changed by their experiences that they wonder if they will ever be able to return to the life they knew.
Back in 2010, Aboulela’s other characters are wondering pretty much the same thing. Oz is picked up by the authorities for questioning about possible terrorist leanings, leaving Malak frantic with worry and Natasha torn between helping her friend and protecting herself from the fallout. Her computer has been confiscated and her apartment broken into. She’s facing a formal reprimand at work, and her ill father wants her to come to Sudan.
Natasha, the lone survivor of her Russian mother’s and Sudanese father’s marriage, has always regarded herself as an unsuccessful amalgamation of East and West: “I was a failed hybrid, made up of unalloyed selves.” Now, with her carefully constructed Western life in free-fall, she fumbles toward a more unified whole.
If Aboulela were less deft, “The Kindness of Enemies” would come across as a heavy-handed polemic. Instead, the empathy with which she draws characters trying to straddle shifting fault lines emerges as a vital ingredient to understanding our own less-than-simple times.
Yvonne Zipp is the Monitor’s fiction critic.