REVIEW

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

The Country of Others, by Leila Slimani.

The Country of Others, by Leila Slimani.

French-Moroccan writer Leila Slimani. Picture: Getty Images

French-Moroccan writer Leila Slimani. Picture: Getty Images

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.

There is Selma, the sultry younger sister of Amine and Omar. Like the teenage Mathilde, Selma longs for freedom, adventure and love.

Selma, unlike Mathilde, will not be allowed to marry across national lines. She is forced to marry Mourad, the toothless foreman on the farm - who also desires the impossible after falling in love with Amine.

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.

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This story Setting the scene for drama of desire and ambition first appeared on The Canberra Times.