An enchanting, deeply felt portrait of three women searching for freedom, from the three-times Orange Prize longlisted, Scottish Book Award and Caine Prize winner Leila Aboulela.
Salma, Moni and Iman are embarking on a road trip to the highlands to pay homage to Lady Evelyn Cobbold, the first British woman convert to Islam to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca. The women are looking for more than a holiday. Each wants to escape her life; each wants an answer.
Salma came up with the idea for the trip. Born in Egypt, she moved to Scotland for love, giving up her right to practise medicine. Now a successful masseuse, married to David and bringing up their children, she tries every day to fit in. And when her old boyfriend Amir starts messaging her, she is tempted to risk the life she has worked so hard to build.
Moni gave up a career in banking to care for her disabled son. After five years she is reaching breaking point. Her husband wants them to join him in Saudi Arabia, but Moni is reluctant to uproot her son, taking him to a country where she fears his condition will worsen.
Iman, the youngest of the three, in her late twenties and yet on her third husband, is burdened by her beauty. Treated like a pet by her lovers and friends, she longs to be alone and free.
On a remote hillside in Inverness, the women are visited by the Hoopoe, a sacred bird whose fables from Muslim and Celtic literature compel them to question the balance between faith and femininity, love, loyalty and sacrifice.
Brilliantly imagined, intense and haunting, Bird Summons confirmsLeila Aboulela’s reputation as one of our finest contemporary writers.
Named a Best Book of 2019 by the Guardian
Named one of the “10 Best Books of February” by the Christian Science Monitor
“Elegant… Possesses all the pleasures we’ve come to expect from Aboulela, the author of Lyrics Alley and The Translator: psychological acuity, rich characterization, intricate emotional plotting. And prose that is clear, lovely and resonant as a ringing bell. But this book is also the mark of an author refreshing herself aesthetically, as Aboulela introduces a fantastical golden thread into realism’s tight weave, to magical effect. While the themes that often populate her work are again examined here — cross-cultural marriage, faith, migration, notions of home — this time, the central questions are metaphysical: What lies within us? And what waits for us beyond this world? With Aboulela leading us, the quest for answers is a thrilling, soulful adventure.”—Keija Parssinen, Washington Post
“Aboulela does a beautiful job examining faith and the interior life of women.”—Christian Science Monitor
“This novel is a perfect balancing act: a beautiful portrait of three individuals, an insightful blend of Muslim and Celtic fables, equal parts fierce and fun.”—LitHub, “10 New Books We’re Excited About This Week”
“Engagingly executed… Each well-developed plot line deepens characterization, while Aboulela’s interweaving of Muslim and Celtic fables via the sacred hoopoe bird, adds another dimension to the story and offers a sense of connection between the two traditions and the past and the present.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Impressive… Aboulela’s novel is empathetic and insightful, offering a nuanced representation of the three characters through a blend of Islamic faith and Scottish folklore.”—Publishers Weekly
“Tender, but unsentimental… rooted in everyday experience without forsaking the spiritual, told in effortlessly enjoyable style.”—Daily Mail
“She’s so good with women’s interiority, and Muslim women’s subjectivity… She gets beyond any cliché or type of the Muslim women.”—Arifa Akbar, BBC Radio
“BIRD SUMMONS is a heady blend of social realism, magic, Middle Eastern folktale and Celtic myth. Above all it is the story of three women on a journey not only to the Highlands but also into themselves, as they confront their hopes, fears and deepest secrets. Leila Aboulela’s is a unique and refreshing voice in contemporary Scottish fiction’’ — James Robertson, author of THE TESTAMENT OF GIDEON MACK and TO BE CONTINUED
“BIRD SUMMONS is a magic carpet ride into the forest of history and the lives of women. Deep and wild’’ — Lucy Ellmann, author of the Guardian Fiction Prize winner SWEET DESSERTS, and MIMI
“BIRD SUMMONS is the story of three Arab women on a quest in the Scottish Highlands and how their experience challenges and reveals them layer by layer. It is engaging and funny and rich in narrative suspense.’’ — Abdulrazak Gurnah, Booker Prize-shortlisted author of PARADISE and GRAVEL HEART
“A wonderful book. I loved the beauty of its language and the subtle interweaving of myth with the spiritual and physical journeys of the women. I found it fascinating, powerful and profound’’ — Anne Donovan, author of BUDDHA DA
“Leila Aboulela is a constant inspiration to me. Her acute observations, magical realism and fine, flowing prose about women and worlds I know well but had never seen drawn in all their vivid complexity on the page before, are what make me return to her work again and again.’’ — Sabrina Mahfouz, editor of The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write
“BIRD SUMMONS is a Scottish-Arabic Canterbury Tales, a quest full of stories and surprises: a challenging storyteller’s tour de force, uniting two radically different cultures with a handshake and a kiss.’’— Patricia Duncker, author of HALLUCINATING FOUCAULT and SOPHIE AND THE SIBYL: A VICTORIAN ROMANCE
Three Muslim women set out on a journey to the Highlands to visit the grave of Lady Evelyn Cobbold (a convert to Islam and the first British woman to make the pilgrimage to Mecca). As they bicker and banter on the way, the tensions between them grow and through modern methods of communication and social media their lives stretch out to loyalties in different continents. On the shores of Loch Ness, the women stop to stay at a monastery which had been converted into a resort. There the women each have a spiritual experience. The vison/experience is manifested to each of them in a completely different way. It brings into focus their deepest misconceptions and the differences between them. With each passing day, the holiday resort becomes disturbing and then foreboding. What was once charming is now smoky with menace and when the women attempt to accomplish their aim of visiting Lady Evelyn Cobbold’s grave up in the hills of her deer estate, they are weighed down by their own previous actions and fantasies as well as restrictions imposed on them due to the stalking season.
The three women are united in that they are Muslim, Arab and they moved to live in Britain at some point in their lives. They see themselves as good, observant Muslims but even within their conventional lives there is a danger of wandering astray. Salma has no intention of having an affair with Amir and feels safe flirting with him long-distance but, still, she is cheating on her husband and taking the first steps in ruining her marriage and by extension the happy life she had built up. Moni believes she is a wonderful mother, sacrificing all for her disabled son, but in doing so she is neglecting her husband and ultimately being unfair to herself. Iman feels justified in rebelling from the constraints of her femininity (i.e wearing the hijab and needing Salma for protection) but she learns that total uninhibited freedom is impossible for humans, there will always be the need for maturity and a sense of responsibility.
In their attempt to visit Lady Evelyn’s grave, the women experience surreal manifestations of the spiritual danger they are facing. The consequences of their life choices take tangible shapes that pose a threat and issue a warning. Combining Islamic fables (The Conference of the Birds, Kalila & Dimna) with Scottish folktales and the influence of Pilgrims Progress, the novel is a contemporary search for salvation and enlightenment.
The Hoopoe is the figure of the spiritual/religious teacher who imparts ancient wisdom and guidance. But his powers are limited. The women must make their own choices and chart their own destinies. Away from the city (which represents restrictions, formality and rituals both religious and secular) the spiritual freedom that the women encounter is vast and beyond control. As Lady Evelyn was able to transform her life and (as a lone European woman undertaking the pilgrimage to Mecca) conquer uncharted territories, so do the women traverse a spiritual expanse and gain a better understanding of their roles and the truths of their existence.