Leila Aboulela, hailed as “a versatile prose stylist” (New York Times) has also been praised by J.M. Coetzee, Ali Smith, and Ben Okri, among others, for her rich and nuanced novels depicting Islamic spiritual and political life. Her new novel is an enchanting narrative of the years leading up to the British conquest of Sudan in 1898, and a deeply human look at the tensions between Britain and Sudan, Christianity and Islam, colonizer and colonized. In River Spirit, Aboulela gives us the unforgettable story of a people who—against the odds and for a brief time—gained independence from foreign rule through their willpower, subterfuge, and sacrifice.
When Akuany and her brother Bol are orphaned in a village raid in South Sudan, they’re taken in by a young merchant Yaseen who promises to care for them, a vow that tethers him to Akuany through their adulthood. As a revolutionary leader rises to power – the self-proclaimed Mahdi, prophesied redeemer of Islam – Sudan begins to slip from the grasp of Ottoman rule, and everyone must choose a side. A scholar of the Qur’an, Yaseen feels beholden to stand against this false Mahdi, even as his choice splinters his family. Meanwhile, Akuany moves through her young adulthood and across the country alone, sold and traded from house to house, with Yaseen as her inconsistent lifeline. Everything each of them is striving for – love, freedom, safety – is all on the line in the fight for Sudan.
Through the voices of seven men and women whose fates grow inextricably linked, Aboulela’s latest novel illuminates a fraught and bloody reckoning with the history of a people caught in the crosshairs of imperialism. River Spirit is a powerful tale of corruption, coming of age, and unshakeable devotion – to a cause, to one’s faith, and to the people who become family.
“A novel of extraordinary sympathy and insight… a wonderful achievement.”—Abdulrazak Gurnah, Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature
“In rich, evocative detail, Aboulela captures one of the most important moments in Sudanese history. But ultimately, this is a story about people. Everyone—from Akuany to Yaseen to Musa to Fatima to Robert—reminded me of the hearts and minds affected by the winds of imperialism. You must read this.”—Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of Wench and Take My Hand
“Leila Aboulela weaves together strands of Sudan’s history in this fascinating and unforgettable tale. By far my favourite of all her works, Aboulela employs elegant, poetic prose to create yet another masterpiece. This is a story that demands to be read. It is an excellent novel.”—Goretti Kyomuhendo, author of Waiting
“Painted with the words of an artist who loves and understands their subject, this novel is a historical portrait of freedom. Aboulela skillfully draws the uncertain colours of what freedom means to different individuals in a Mahdist Sudan to the last full stop.”—Zukiswa Wanner, author of The Madams
“In River Spirit, Aboulela’s writing soars. It is urgent and it is critical. She joins writers like Maaza Mengiste, Namwali Serpell and Ayesha Haruna Atta in excavating history, breathing life into it, and presenting it in a new light. It is so far my best read this year.”—Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, author of A Girl is a Body of Water
“Action-packed Aboulela casts a scrutinous and perceptive eye on the motives of religious leaders and colonial forces, and she layers the narrative with a rich blend of languages and cultures. This brims with drama and nuance.”—Publishers Weekly
“Rich and moving… captivating.”—Kirkus
“Historical novels are often most successful when they focus on ordinary people experiencing extraordinary times, and that is the case with Aboulela’s latest. Zamzam and Yaseen’s love story is moving and gripping, sweeping the reader along hoping that they will end up together against the odds…Highly recommended.”—Library Journal, starred review.
“[Aboulela] explores themes of faith and conquest without compromising on rich characterization or compelling plot development. She also centralizes women and their experiences in a larger sociopolitical context that is most often viewed in terms of men’s lives… Aboulela reveals the thin lines that can demarcate religious zeal and patriotic fervor, social crusade and personal recklessness, as she creates a finely wrought and compellingly in-depth drama about a land and its people.”—Booklist, starred review.
When I was growing up in Khartoum, our house was about four kilometres away from the palace on the Blue Nile where, in 1884, an embattled General Charles Gordon used to stand on the roof, looking out with his telescope, desperate for the arrival of the British relief expedition. Khartoum was under siege by the armies of the Mahdi and that thrilling story with its tragic ending is something that has always enthralled me. Knowing the location well and studying the history in school and university, made it a familiar backdrop against which I could set my novel. The very initial idea for River Spirit was of young man from Edinburgh who becomes fascinated by the vernacular architecture of colonial Sudan. He paints the Nile and starts to dress like a native. When he sketches the wife of a tribal chief and the drawing is discovered, his career and safety are in jeopardy. I ended up deviating quite far from this original idea. As I was writing, the woman in the drawing/ painting took centre stage, and the artist no longer became the main character.
In my mid-twenties, I moved from Sudan to Scotland. This means that I have now lived almost equally in both countries and no longer see them as worlds apart. I want, through fiction, to bring them together and explore their shared history. A disproportionate number of Scots played a part in Britain’s colonial administration. Those the Sudanese called Ingeleez and I, studying history at school, thought of as English were in fact Scottish! I have a huge plan of writing several historical novels linking Scotland to Sudan. River Spirit is the first.
In the Sudan Archives at Durham university, I found a bill of sale for a woman called Zamzam. I was shocked by this discovery. I knew that slavery existed in nineteenth century Sudan, but to hold in my hand a bill of sale, with an actual monetary figure and the names of the people involved, was quite startling. I also found a petition detailing the case of an enslaved woman who had escaped with a stolen item of clothing from her mistress. She had gone back to her former master, and it was against him that the petition was raised. I found this situation intriguing and complex enough for me to want to fill in the gaps with fiction. I started researching East African slavery, the extent of it, how it differed from the transatlantic West Coast slavery and how nineteenth century Sudan was a gateway to the lucrative markets of Cairo and Istanbul.
Women are dominant in River Spirit but they are merely footnotes in the historical records. For the research, I had to dig and pick up threads here and there. Certainly, I never found a first-person account from a woman’s perspective. Throughout the Mahdist wars, women accompanied the army. They cooked, nursed and set up market stalls every step of the way. They also played a part in espionage, gathering data and passing it on – this inspired the role played by Yaseen’s mother in the novel. I was also excited to discover that the Mahdi had sent a woman ambassador to Gordon at the Khartoum palace. I used that too in the novel.