Getting a better understanding of the people who made us who we are can be a messy business. Lives can be more secretive and unwise decisions more complex than we know. But a better understanding of their lives may be needed to fully understand our own.
The Locust and the Bird is the Lebanese author Hanan Al-Shaykh’s attempt to understand her mother, Kamilla. Kamilla and Hanan had been estranged for many years after Kamilla had left her family to run off with another man. But as Kamilla neared the end of her life, she began pressuring Hanan to chronicle the story of “wails and tales” that was her search for happiness with her lover Muhammad.
Kamilla had already been betrayed many times when she met Muhammad as a young girl. She had been abandoned by her father, relocated to Beirut by her mother, denied an education, and unknowingly engaged to a much older relative. Yet, drawn to each other’s love of movies and music and life, the pair met in secret with the aid of a seamstress. But Muhammad’s educational obligations and Kamilla‘s arranged marriage pulled them apart. Despite not knowing if they would ever be free to marry, the pair reunited and continued to meet in secret for many years.
Though we know from Hanan’s introduction that her mother finally leaves, we don’t know what the circumstances were. We don’t know if Kamilla was allowed to marry Muhammad, or if their life together was as happy as she imagined it. The novel is an unfolding of the intricate gains and losses to Kamilla’s fight for love.
Al-Shaykh’s examination of her mother’s life gives tribute to her mother’s strength. Kamilla must withstand immense pressure as she faces dangers both epic and episodic. But her wicked sense of humor, and her willingness to use any means available to her, never fails to entertain and aggravate those who are trying to control her.
Most chapters in the novel are kept short, focusing on one small part in the epic. Muhammad’s poetry, songs of Kamilla’s youth, Muslim prayers, and earthy descriptions of family life and neighborhood gossip all create hypnotic, self-contained stories.
But it’s the plight of the two lovers that keeps you reading. Neither Kamilla nor Muhammad can picture living without each other. Their damnation and salvation exists within their connection to each other, just as the trapped animals and the bound lovers in the fable that gives the novel its name.
Leigh is a fearless writer who never met a genre, subject, or format she didn’t like. She has written professionally for the past six years and enjoys biking, exploring odd corners of Northeast Ohio, and discovering those good books she hasn’t read yet.