In ‘Bird Summons,’ three women go on holiday – and not the relaxing kind

Leila Aboulela’s novel explores the inner lives and faith of three Muslim women who go on a pilgrimage to a Scottish gravesite together.

Courtesy of Grove Atlantic
“Bird Summons” by Leila Aboulela, Black Cat, 290 pp.

Three women set off on a lochside holiday in Leila Aboulela’s new novel, “Bird Summons.” Salma, Moni, and Iman are hiking to the grave of Lady Evelyn Cobbold, the first British woman to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Salma, the leader, had planned a larger pilgrimage, but everyone else dropped out. Neither Iman, a Syrian refugee, nor Moni have the kind of life that includes vacations.

Moni, a high-powered banker whose life has been subsumed in caring for her disabled son, Adam, is especially poignant. “Sleep became a treat. A nap the only gift she wanted.” She regards her MBA-fueled career as “a doddle” next to the relentlessness of caregiving. “Life was about getting through each day; it was no longer about futures.” It’s clear from the get-go that this is meant to be a journey that will not leave the trio unchanged: “Every holiday was a test. Every holiday was a risk.”

The risks become apparent soon enough. Iman gets dumped by her third husband as they set out, leaving her homeless. Iman, who is beautiful enough to be a model, has spent her life being left. “‘Don’t come back,’ that’s what they said to her whenever she phoned,” she thinks about her family in Syria. “None of them wanted her back. For her own good, of course. But still, it felt, at times, like rejection.”

Salma, who married a Scottish man and whose teenagers are embarrassed by her (a fairly universal parenting experience) is missing her childhood home in Egypt. She has reconnected with her high school sweetheart, Amir, with whom she’s conducting a Facebook flirtation.

Aboulela, who’s been nominated three times for the Orange Prize, excels at writing the interior lives of women and exploring their Muslim faith, and she brings those qualities to bear here. Unfortunately, she introduces a thread of magic realism that winds up snarling the plot.

Once at the lake, Iman is visited by a talking bird, who tells her fables from Scottish folk tales; the poet Rumi; and the fantasy writer George MacDonald. Moni starts playing with a young boy Adam’s age who the other two never see, while Salma is convinced a runner is Amir. The tales culminate in an episode of horror right out of David Lynch or “Alice in Wonderland.”

“Bird Summons” offers plenty of Aboulela’s lyrical writing and empathy, but a better place to start would be either “The Translator,” a retelling of Jane Eyre with a Muslim heroine, or the award-winning “Lyrics Alley.”

But it’s impossible not to root for her trio, or for a novel that comes with realizations like this: “Perhaps that’s what counted at the end, the actions one considered small and casual, not the big ones carried on the peg of self-righteousness.”

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