Lovers of Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood trilogy who have often wondered what it would be like to tuck into a few google buns, shock toffees and pop biscuits have only to pick up Boualem Sansal’s Harraga, which means ‘path burner’ in Arabic. This beautiful tale about two diametrically opposing personalities, Lamia and Cherifa, will make your taste buds sing with hits of sugar as well as spice.
The protagonist, Lamia, has lost her parents and elder brother in quick succession. Her younger brother, Sofiane, is a Harraga, who has run away from home, hoping to leave the country and find a better life. Having stockpiled more than a fair share of sorrow, Lamia retreats to the colonial mansion she calls home. By day, she is a paediatrician and it helps stave away penury, despair and encroaching madness, but barely. It is then that a pregnant waif, sent by Sofiane, blows into her life like a runaway tornado. Cherifa is just as destructive and departs as quickly leaving Lamia reeling from her encounter with a prodigious force of nature.
Lamia is a self-proclaimed “hateful bitch” whose prickly exterior belies a tender core, spilling over with repressed passion and a mother’s endless compassion. Her indictment of Algiers, which according to her is a “trollop who gives of herself the better to take”, the corrupt government that has allowed their country to go to seed and Islamists, who “dream of the glorious crimes against humanity yet to be committed” will have the reader lapping up her observations and asking for more.
In direct contrast, Cherifa is a blithe spirit, who breezes through life, unmindful that in their world, an unwed, knocked-up mother, who has no trouble picking up men even in the advanced stages of her pregnancy may well be looking at death penalty. Gravitating towards other victims, who had been affected by the tornado, Lamia struggles in vain to recapture the moonbeam that had slipped through her fingers, on the road leading to a moving climax.
In addition to exploring the perils of being a single woman in a patriarchal society, extreme solitude and disillusionment, Sansal seeks to answer his own question, “How far can your life take you when there is nothing to hold you back?” and the revelation will leave you with a lump in the throat, a smile on the lips and a fervent desire to become an honest-to-goodness Harraga.