A powerful story of exile, migration, and betrayal, from the Booker Prize–shortlisted author of Paradise.
Salim has always known that his father does not want him. Living with his parents and his adored Uncle Amir in a house full of secrets, he is a bookish child, a dreamer haunted by night terrors. It is the 1970s and Zanzibar is changing. Tourists arrive, the island's white sands obscuring the memory of recent conflict--the longed-for independence from British colonialism swiftly followed by bloody revolution. When his father moves out, retreating into disheveled introspection, Salim is confused and ashamed. His mother does not discuss the change, nor does she explain her absences with a strange man; silence is layered on silence.
When glamorous Uncle Amir, now a senior diplomat, offers Salim an escape, the lonely teenager travels to London for college. But nothing has prepared him for the biting cold and seething crowds of this hostile city. Struggling to find a foothold, and to understand the darkness at the heart of his family, he must face devastating truths about those closest to him--and about love, sex and power. Evoking the immigrant experience with unsentimental precision and profound understanding, Gravel Heart is a powerfully affecting story of isolation, identity, belonging, and betrayal, and Abdulrazak Gurnah's most astonishing achievement.
Not until over a hundred pages into this novel does Salim, the narrator whose life we follow and whose thoughts we inhabit, say out loud to anyone in his adopted country where he's from: Zanzibar, a small island off the east coast of Africa. The conversation in which this information is revealed takes place in Brighton, England, where Salim has moved after three years in London in order to start over. First brought to England after high school by his wealthy ambassador uncle, Salim floundered in business school and so resolved to make the life he wanted, studying literature and living alone even though it meant supporting himself. The first third of the novel reflects the almost entirely interior world of Salim's upbringing in a tiny house in Zanzibar, carefully observing the adults around him. An observant and dutiful child, Salim is bewildered when his father leaves home and becomes a shadow of his former self, living across town. At age 11, Salim begins bringing his father a basket lunch every day, "like taking food to a prisoner." Once Salim is in his 30s, the events behind his father's leaving and his mother's continued dedication to her husband become clear, the result of a corrupt government official and impossible choices no one should have had to make. Although the book is slow to start, Gurnah (By the Sea) finds a beautiful, quiet, contemplative tone in which to describe and reflect on Salim's experiences of displacement and discovery.