Lyrics Alley is a skinny book Flower. Sorry, should I have issued a spoiler alert before I wrote that? Well, in for a penny...it's not only skinny but it has that fashionable trade paperback trim size. What I think of as the silhouette of an Edwardian novel. Do not let the 320 page count fool you. If this were the normal size hard cover the page count would be about 170 pages. So how did I like this novella/short story? Loved it. I only got to love it for a couple hours but I loved it nevertheless.
Author Lelia Aboulela brings us inside the closed world of a prosperous home in 1950's Sudan. In the larger world at this time Sudan was about to gain it's independence from Egypt and Great Britain and embark on a series of civil wars but those events are barely touched on in Lyrics Alley. That side of life is not what this novel is about. Lyrics Alley is smaller in scale and bigger in humanity.
Despite a lifestyle dedicated to custom, Mahmoud Abuzeid is a forward thinking man. He has successfully managed the family business and been a wealthy and respected man in the community for many years. Mahoud has been grooming his favorite son Nur to take over the business. Mahoud's wives, the traditional, Sudanese born Waheeba and the much younger, Cairo born Nabilah speak for fight between the past and the future. Although Waheeba is Nur's mother and runs his household, Mahoud prefers the more cosmopolitan company of Nabilah. When war between the wives escalate and a tragedy befalls Nur change amid competing desires come to the family whether they all embrace it or not.
Although the political changes in Sudan are not made a specific part of the story in Lyrics Alley, Aboulela finds other ways to bring the 20th century creeping into the Abuzeid enclave. The close knit character's searching for more choices, freedom and independence are manifesting themselves in this novel and not in harmonious ways. Mahoud has seen himself as the benevolent patriarch, deciding what's best for everyone without a thought of being challenged but change can be insidious, seductive, unstoppable even for a dictator.
Lyrics Alley is a thoughtful novel written in precise, controlled language. It is clear that Aboulela cares deeply about these characters. The loving hand she brings to their every day is juxtaposed by the big mountains Aboulela gives them to climb: tradition verses change, duty verses freedom, silence verses argument, and religion verses doubt without ever creating a villain. As the narrative shifts between different voices and mindsets and you desperately want everyone to be happy, but how often does that happen?