Some short story collections are enjoyable but instantly forgettable – the literary equivalent, perhaps, of empty calories. Happily, however, this isn’t the case with Leila Aboulela’s Elsewhere, Home. In spite of the obvious constraints of the form, the award-winning Sudanese writer, now living in Aberdeen, manages to conjure up characters as believable and as memorable as any you might expect to encounter in a full-length novel.
Part of her skill lies in her ability to zero in, not on specific character traits, necessarily, but on moments of intense emotion; as often as not, we come to know the people who populate these pages by seeing how they behave in extremis.
In “Something Old, Something New”, for example, the frustration and embarrassment of a young Scottish Muslim man are made almost tangible, as his trip to Khartoum to marry a Sudanese girl he met in Edinburgh goes horribly wrong. First her father dies, so the wedding has to be postponed to allow the funeral to take place, then he has his passport stolen, along with papers proving he is a practising Muslim, making the delicate administrative manoeuvres necessary to formalise their union that much harder. His behaviour is not always exemplary, but he reacts to his misfortune as many people would react, and when the denouement comes it’s impossible not to root for him, in spite of his shortcomings.
Sometimes Aboulela’s characters are almost defined by their emotions, to the extent that the memory of those emotions is what stays with you once their stories are over. In “The Ostrich”, a newly pregnant Sudanese woman called Samra flies from Khartoum to London to be with her cruel, tactless husband Majdy, who is studying for a PhD. He greets her by informing her she looks like “something from the third world”. Previously, we learn, he has told her off for forgetting she is in London and walking a few steps behind him, and slapped her after a dinner party because she didn’t come across as “western” enough in front of their guests.
No wonder her meeting on the plane with a kind, eccentric boy she went to college with, the titular Ostrich, who once told her she looked beautiful in blue, makes her wonder if her life might have turned out differently had she chosen an alternative path; the distinctive combination of wistfulness and resignation that suffuses Samra’s story resonates far beyond the end of her brief tale.
Most of the stories in Elsewhere, Home concern the differences between the cultures of Sudan and Egypt and the UK, and the way in which these differences can be negotiated – or sometimes not. The journeys may often be similar, but Aboulela takes us beyond stereotypes and presents a rich, wide-ranging portrait of immigrant experience.
Elsewhere, Home, by Leila Aboulela, Telegram Books, £8.99. Leila Aboulela is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 15 August