An unassuaged homesickness has been a theme of Leila Aboulela’s fiction ever since the Sudanese-Egyptian moved to Aberdeen from Khartoum and began writing. Her feted debut novel, The Translator (1999), featured a Sudanese widow in Scotland grieving for her husband and her homeland, while Minaret (2005), saw a Sudanese woman culturally adrift in London.
A yearning for home tugs at the souls of Aboulela’s characters in this beautiful and desolate collection of 13 short stories, which brings together her earliest fiction from the 1990s to her latest. They distil many of her recurring concerns – immigrant loneliness, complicated romance and a portrayal of the Islamic faith that goes far beyond the cliched narrative – but without ever becoming trite. Faith, in fact, holds a precious place in the lives of her characters, who feel lost when they cannot pray or forget to do so because of the absence of the azaan (the call to prayer) in the west. Islam is never a dogma but a deeply felt urge.
An intimacy is created between couples, siblings, mothers and daughters that immediately pulls the reader into their lives. Friction between east and west, Islam and secularism, is channelled through these relationships. In Summer Maze, an Egyptian-born young woman living in London thinks back to a time when she was more straightforwardly Egyptian and able to speak her mother Lateefa’s tongue. Now, though, “it was as if Lateefa’s values were a subtle, throttled part of her”.
In The Museum, which won the Caine prize for African writing in 2000, a couple are on a first date. She is a privileged overseas Sudanese student in Scotland; he is a geeky, working-class Scot with a crush on her. “Do ye get homesick?” he asks, and she replies that she yearns for things she didn’t think she would miss, such as the azaan. He looks at her with wonder and says: “We did Islam in school.”
Occasionally she gets inside the minds of men too. Something Old, Something New is told from the perspective of a white Muslim convert from Edinburgh, visiting his Sudanese fiancee in Khartoum for the first time. Once there, his desire for her becomes entangled with his suspicions of the “foreigners” in whose land he now feels stranded. Being driven from the airport to his hotel, he thinks: “Any one of these passersby could easily punch him through the window, yank off his watch, his sunglasses, snatch his wallet from the pocket of his shirt.”
Mixed-race couples emerge time and again but there is rarely a happy fusion of cultural identities. Fissures occur between Muslim couples too: a desperately homesick wife who leaves Sudan to be with her husband in London is told by him: “If you cover your hair in London they’ll think I’m forcing you to do that.” Remembering the freer woman she was, she thinks: “So I must walk unclothed, imagining cotton on my hair, lifting my hand to adjust an imaginary tobe.”
Pages of Fruit features a traditional housewife who becomes an ardent fan of a Muslim novelist she has never met, but whom she regards as an iconoclast. She saves up for a trip to the Edinburgh book festival in the hope of meeting her, sure that they will feel a sisterly affinity, but is harshly rejected. Aboulela builds up the emotional drama here with such mastery that the rebuff feels like a tragedy, though the housewife’s life is outwardly unchanged.
There is so much quiet brilliance to this story and others that it is a surprise for those who have only followed Aboulela’s long-form fiction to discover she has just as much mastery of the short form.
• Elsewhere, Home by Leila Aboulela is published by Telegram (£8.99). To order a copy for £7.64 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK pp over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min pp of £1.99