As the Middle East remains chaotic, the lasting effects of the Arab Spring remain ambiguous. Will history show that the Egyptian revolution was a turning point for despotic rule or merely an extension of the extremism that marked the decades that preceded it?
Author Yasmine El Rashidi is well versed in Egyptian culture and history. She writes extensively about the events leading up to and following the 2011 Egyptian revolution for the New York Review of Books.
It may seem a departure then that her new book, “Chronicle of a Last Summer,” is a novel, but turning to fiction reveals El Rashidi’s desire to present a unique perspective on history. Choosing to examine the last 30-some-odd years of turmoil in Cairo through the eyes of a young woman is no casual decision.
This coming-of-age novel begins in 1984 as an unnamed 6-year old girl lives in a world of secrets and mystery. Her beloved father has disappeared. Her mother spends her days in increasing isolation. It’s only through overheard conversations that the girl begins to piece together the ways in which her world has changed irrevocably. Tellingly, she looks through hidden photo albums and imagines the black-and-white photos as color images.
This dreamlike novel suspends its heroine between the concrete details of her everyday life and the unspoken truths that linger like gun smoke. Sacrificing action for atmosphere, “Chronicle of a Last Summer” slips the reader into the experience of a world aching for change yet struggling to hold onto familiar places and rituals.
While El Rashidi struggles to create a convincing childlike voice, her narrative strengthens as her heroine reveals her desires and passions as a college student and then as an artist. Unlike her politically active male family members, she never becomes a political player. The passivity that was foisted upon her as a child grows into detachment as an adult. She fights this apathy through art, asking herself, “What does it mean to be devoted?” Language such as this is emblematic of the novel’s pacing and movement.
Through emotions — not direct political force or action — our heroine passes from 1998 to 2014, gradually growing in her awareness of the change that surrounds her. As an artist, she strives to capture the essence of her world while also working to heal it.
“I can’t imagine what might efface our most recent disappointments, except maybe the passing incandescence of love.”
There are those who create history, those who document history and those who strive to heal the wounds of history. El Rashidi’s young woman explores that final take on history. This quiet optimism establishes a sense of hope for a peaceful future.
Lauren LeBlanc is a freelance book editor and writer, as well as a senior nonfiction editor at Guernica magazine. A native New Orleanian, she lives in Brooklyn.
Chronicle of a Last Summer
By: Yasmine El Rashidi.
Publisher: Tim Duggan Books, 181 pages, $22.