So this is another saga about a patriarchal family in exotic setting. Don't you love those? Publishers sure do - there is a new one every two weeks.
'Lyrics Alley' starts bizarrely with a family tree, even though there are only two generations on it - two brothers and their children. Who needs a tree? Please, I am a pro! I eat your tree for breakfast. I read Hundred Years of Solitude and got that under control and let me tell you there were about twelve generations, three hundred characters and all of them named Jose Arcadio and Aureliano.
This book is not brilliant but it's correct. The story is engaging, I established emotional connection with the characters, I got as indignant as usual over the oppression of women and learnt a few exotic sounding words like 'hoash' and 'saraya'.
The main problem was that this book only scratched the surface and ended up being a little underwhelming. It was the first book I've read set in Sudan. The family drama was set against the backdrop of Sudanese fight for independence and I hoped to learn more about the political turmoil of the era but sadly, it doesn't seem I will be able to hold a meaningful conversation about the history of Sudan anytime soon.
Another lost opportunity, I think, was the interesting parallel of situation Nur has found himself in and the situation most Muslim women find themselves in. It was only alluded at in one paragraph and then seemingly Aboulela abandoned the idea. There was a certain role reversal at some point and I thought it could've been explored more as it was a very interesting concept and not really done often in your usual family sagas.
On the other hand, comparisons between modern Egypt and backward Sudan and the constant juxtaposition of them was overdone at times.
The strength of the book was its love story which was described subtly and without mawkishness, and most importantly - authentically.
I would say if you serendipitously come across 'Lyrics Alley', give it a go, but don't set out to look for it.