Only in London – Hanan Al-Shaykh (2002)


After finding this title, both author and title new to me, I thought I’d see how it was. Four strangers meet on a bumpy plane ride, and then from there, the story continues with each of their lives as threads in a piece of cotton. If I can carry that metaphor further, it’s a really badly woven piece of cloth with great big holes in it, plot-wise.

Not being familiar with the author or the title (but quite happy to see that it was written by someone other than a rich white person), I started the book. It was pretty ok – the plane incident happens, the characters disembark and go off to their separate / connected lives.

You’d expect there to be some jumping around as you’re introduced to the lives of the characters, all immigrants to London (bar one), because that’s part of getting to know them. However, Al-Shaykh jumps around from character to character at random moments, and at times, it’s really tricky to know exactly who you’re reading about at times. It’s also tricky to keep track of where these characters are. At the start of the paragraph, the character is in a London hotel, and then by the end, s/he is on an airplane going somewhere, but where? How did s/he get there? Weren’t they just in a pub five seconds ago? This was one of the most disjointed reads I’d ever looked at.

And this was a shame as the book had so much potential. The author is a pretty established writer from Lebanon (the book was translated into English prior to pub in UK), so it’s not that this was a young scribe with a debut novel – I feel she should know how to do this by now with her publication record. I usually really enjoy books with individual plot strands that are woven together somehow, but in this book, you started out with the four character strands, but then the plot would be so convoluted and unevenly spread amongst the four that it was easy to forget who was who. (And besides, the blurb on the back cover gives the whole game away anyway.)

And the plot holes? Oh my. These came along quite regularly and were huge chasms (along with the gaps in continuity). At first, I thought I had been daydreaming when I was reading and just missed it, but then I realized that it was one of these “It’s not me – it’s you” cases.

It was a shame as this really had potential; my only explanation is that perhaps there was a reason why I am not familiar with the author or her work…. Sigh. I wish I could get this time back. I’m going to have to chalk it up to experience, I’m afraid. Her other work may be stronger, but I’m not sure that I’ll check it out.

1 thought on “Only in London – Hanan Al-Shaykh (2002)

  1. That’s too bad. I hate feeling like I’ve wasted hours of my life on a book not worth reading. Hopefully your next book won’t disappoint.

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