Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994, this novel opens in East Africa before World War I and follows 12-year-old Yusuf, who has been handed over to a wealthy merchant as an indentured servant. Throughout the book, Yusuf recounts his excursions across the continent along with the natural life, other tribes and threats they encounter. Our reviewer called it “a poignant meditation on the nature of freedom and the loss of innocence, for both a single sensitive boy and an entire continent.”
An unnamed narrator flees Zanzibar in the 1960s for England, where he soon falls in love with an Englishwoman and begins a family. As he battles the racism he encounters there, he also wrestles with self-loathing for his attempts to blend in. The book is “corrosively funny and relentless,” our reviewer wrote. “Gurnah skillfully depicts the agony of a man caught between two cultures, each of which would disown him for his links to the other.”
Escaping lawlessness and corruption, Saleh Omar, a 65-year-old merchant from Zanzibar, applies for asylum in England. The book details casual cruelty from British immigration officials and a dystopian bureaucracy that underpins the resettlement efforts, as Saleh is eventually shuttled to a quiet seaside town. By chance, he meets the son of the man who caused great suffering for Saleh and his family, and their eventual friendship is a reconciliation of their family histories. As our reviewer wrote: “It is extraordinarily moving when Saleh Omar does find his own kind of refuge in friendship, an asylum made of experience that is shared.”
Two ill-fated love stories entwine in this novel: In 1899, a British adventurer and “anti-Empire wallah” is taken in by an East African shopkeeper and falls in love with his sister Rehana, causing a scandal. Decades later, a Zanzibari academic recounts his own family’s woes: how his brother fell in love with Rehana’s granddaughter.