The Others – Seba Al-Herz (Seven Stories Press)

Buy It Now direct from Seven Stories Press or at Amazon through Dreamwalker Group.

I love books that are able to take me deep inside another culture and help me experience a life totally outside my own. Seba Al-Herz’s The Others does that and so much more – a remarkable feat for a debut novel, but just one of the remarkable feats this book accomplishes.

The story is simple: our nameless narrator is a Shi’a lesbian at a girls’ college in a heavily Sunni province of Saudi Arabia. She falls in love and lust with Dai, a playful, daring consort who continually challenges, vexes and fascinates her as they struggle to maintain their secretive relationship through in the face of prejudice, schoolgirl gossip, temptation and – yes – men.

But the plot is not the point here. Not much really happens in terms of twist and turns. This is a character-driven novel, and what marvelous characters they are. Dai is both exasperating and exhilirating, driving the narrator to do things she – a careful, plodding introvert – would never do. But that introvert is an interesting person in her own right, afflicted with a seizure disorder that effectively alienates her from her own body. This fits in well with the other themes of societal and political alienation in the novel.

Seba Al-Herz’s prose is as sweet and dense as a mouthful of dates. It overpowers at first, but once you find its underlying rhythm, it carries you on a wave of sensuality. I tried to pick out a representative passage but they all sounded incomplete out of context, needing what came before and after to reveal the beauty of their complexity. If, at times, the structure is a bit awkward, I put that down to translation difficulties. It couldn’t have been easy to render the original Arabic to English.

The translator comes into his own in the afterword, whose commentary puts The Others into social, sexual and political context and explains why the overriding theme of excommunication and isolation is so important in the novel as well as in Shi’a society. But that sounds dull in a way the book is not.

The Others is a sumptuous feast of a read, challenging but well worth the time and thought.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler


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