India, Zanzibar, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Vancouver, Calgary, London, Cairo, Alexandria. When your family map encompasses all these places, how exactly do you determine who you are and where you belong? Such is the question facing Zahra, daughter of Ghulshun and Ali, heir to a tangled history of displacement and intrigue among the world-within-a-world community of Indians and Arabs in East Africa.
The start of A House by the Sea finds Zahra, who has been living and working in London after studying at the American University in Cairo, about to meet her parents (who have been living in Canada) for a holiday in Zanzibar, where the family has roots. A self-described "orphan of the seas," product (she believes) of a twice-removed Indian culture, Zahra has concluded "I wish to stop running." She thinks she can do this by claiming her namesake grandmother's old house in Stone Town, Zanzibar's old district, as a sort of symbolic family refuge. But her efforts to do so get her into a labyrinth of family history involving betrayal and secrets buried so deep that their exhumation will eventually cause her to question her very identity. The family narrative, it turns out, hinges on the elder Zahra's decision, as a 12-year-old, to forsake her arranged marriage into the local aristocracy and elope to the Swahili Coast with Vilayat Khan, an Indian Muslim of low birth. Much later, the plot thickens further when Zeena, sister-in-law of Ghulshan, takes advantage of political turmoil (Tanzanian soldiers, having crossed into Uganda to fight Idi Amin, come back espousing the dictator's views vis-ŕ-vis their Asian compatriots ) and pulls a particularly nasty family power play.
Sound complicated? It is. Readers will have to be on their toes, and it's not just a matter of plot complexity: the narrative jumps around in place, time, and perspective, names recur over generations, people are selective with the truth. Happily, the challenge of keeping on top of things is smoothed over by Karmali's rich, evocative, at times almost musical way with language. Her prose is a sensory feast--clothing, hair, weather, flora and fauna are all lingered over in loving detail. Karmali never loses sight of the importance of food in her characters' culture, listing in full the elements of many a meal, making their ingredients read like poetry. She is also remarkably adept at conveying atmosphere, a talent especially appropriate here because the settings-the international bazaar of Zanzibar, a family farm at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, the bustle of modern Cairo and London-play a part as important as the characters themselves.
One small hiccup is the feeling that the love story between Zahra and Hussein, the Zanzibar lawyer supposedly helping her in her house purchase, never really takes off; we have to take it on faith that Zahra's emotions are strong enough to justify the drastic step she takes with him. It's a perplexing shortcoming, since the elder Zahra's early encounters with her future husband are among the most vivid passages in the book.
Overall, though, one is left with the impression of having encountered an exciting new talent. Sikeena Karmali has created a fresh take on the eternal theme of the search for a home. Véhicule Press couldn't have hoped for a better launch for its new fiction imprint, Esplanade Books.
Ian McGillis's novel A Tourist's Guide to Glengarry was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock humour award.