Leila Slimani's first novel in a planned Moroccan trilogy is a sweeping historical drama

French-Moroccan writer Leila Slimani. Picture: Getty Images
French-Moroccan writer Leila Slimani. Picture: Getty Images
  • The Country of Others, by Leila Slimani. Faber. $29.99.

In the dying days of World War Two, young Mathilde falls for a dashing Moroccan soldier, Amine. Nineteen and tempestuous, the young Frenchwoman has been cooped up in her village in Alsace for four years, upset less by the war than by a lack of adventure. The pair marry.

When Mathilde arrives in Rabat to meet her new husband, she rues the fact of her vomit-stained dress, soiled after a rough crossing from Algiers. It's an inauspicious start to a relationship which will teeter on the verge of violence, much like restive Morocco in the years before independence.

Unbeknownst to Mathilde, Amine has another love - a rocky farm 15 miles outside the town of Meknes. It's here that the young French bride fetches up and grapples with the prospect of making a home on Amine's desolate land. Mathilde stares down the barrel of another more intimate disappointment too. When Amine is back on home soil, she no longer recognises her preoccupied and sometimes surly husband, who is obsessed with creating a productive orchard.

The scene is set for a sweeping historical drama about desire, ambition and the end of French rule in Morocco.

Leila Slimani, who was born in Rabat, has said that she plans to make this novel part of a Moroccan trilogy. It is a departure from her wildly successful second work, Lullaby, about a nanny who murders two children. Her first novel, Adèle, about a female sex addict was similarly provocative.

The Country of Others shows Slimani moving from the singular obsessions of earlier works to something broader and richer, but still tumultuous. This work too is charged with the chop and lurch of characters smashing into one another as Morocco heads towards an implosion.

After an uneven start, Slimani marshals an impressive cast of characters. There is Aicha, Amine and Mathilde's quietly precocious daughter. At a young age, her life is already radically different to that of either parent, her convent education and academic success setting her apart.

Early on, Aicha also realises that she does not belong with either her Moroccan classmates or her French classmates, with their fair hair and ruddy complexions.

There is Selma, the sultry younger sister of Amine and Omar. Like the teenage Mathilde, Selma longs for freedom, adventure and love. During a brief hiatus, when controlling and brutal Omar is off organising within the Moroccan resistance, she goes out in the European part of Meknes. She smokes, watches movies and has a romance with a Frenchman.

Amine is enraged when he learns of the tryst, and he quickly clips her wings. Selma, unlike Mathilde, will not be allowed to marry across national lines. She is forced to marry Mourad, the toothless foreman on the farm.

Even hapless Mourad desires the impossible. He was Amine's aide-de-camp during the war and fell in love with him on the continent. One night, he turns up unannounced at the farmhouse. He is promptly hired as the foreman, but his proximity to Amine is torture. Amine lends him a vest and shirt, and the mere smell of Amine on these borrowed clothes sends him into paroxysms of guilty lust.

There is Dragan Palosi, one of the most intriguing characters in the novel. He is an obstetrician and a Hungarian Jew who goes into business with Amine to fulfil a long-held dream of exporting oranges and dates to his homeland. He also dreams of achieving something daring: making exotic African fruits available behind the iron curtain.

Omar, Amine's younger brother, rails against the "rancid and conformist" society around him. He has a ruthless determination to quash the French in Morocco in the same way that Hitler briefly vanquished them in the motherland.

Omar's willingness to sacrifice everything for the cause will no doubt see him emerge as an independence leader in part two of the planned trilogy. Slimani's drive and energy propel the narrative along in spite of some glaring lapses in translation. Rough and tumble descriptions and uneven characterisations also jar.

Mathilde and Amine's relationship remains at the heart of the work. The pair navigate the brittle and racist social mores of the time, and make some tender and surprising accommodations for each other. Mathilde complains that being married to a "native" is impossible in Meknes, and life on the farm frequently tests her mettle.

Early in the novel, Amine, a relentless agricultural innovator, grafts a lemon onto an orange tree. The tree, dubbed a lemange, produces pithy fruit without the qualities of either parent plant. The strange hybrid sounds a warning note to Moroccans like Amine. He simply wants to be left alone to create a productive farm on his once barren land. Whether that will be possible in the tumult of the times remains to be seen in part two.

This story A drama of desire and ambition first appeared on The Canberra Times.