I had always associated book clubs with cosy English drizzle and somebody’s front room. I never thought I’d join one. For a while after university, where I had to skim a book a week, my love of reading paled to the respect one reserves for worthy tasks. Polishing unreachable windows. De-fleaing the cat.
But then a friend at a coffee morning mentioned the WGO (Women’s Guild Oman) Book Club. I had been hoping to meet people who read, here in Muscat, and this was my chance.
I arrived for the meeting a day early. A mixture of pre-literary excitement and a bafflement which has been my buddy since moving here: I may think it’s Tuesday because it’s the second day of the week, but that does not make it so.
Oman’s weekend runs Fri/Sat, making Sunday Week day 1, hence its name in Arabic:الأحَد – Al Ahad – The first. So mostly, in my mind, I am a day ahead. Preferable to the other way round I guess. Which is what I muttered to the barista as he bid me goodnight with an unexpected and, mildly ironic, high five.
On Tuesday I arrived again at the same cafe in The Wave – a complex of shops and houses built on the seashore. The evening was just pure joy. Twelve or so women clutching hot drinks and holding forth about the novel of the month, Honour by Elif Shafak.
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover which is clearly silly because everyone does. Shafak’s book jackets lined up on shop shelves are as delicate and ornate as sweet french pastries. In this case the pretty, mystical covers tell a half truth.
Honour is indeed a book filled with beauty. Shafak’s descriptions of Turkish and Kurdish culture are apparently spot on. Her vignettes on Islamic life, a delight. This novel also contains a deep sorrow that is not resolved in the story. As though the reader has been invited to hear a friend’s woes without the chance to offer a hug.
Honour’s (many) sadnesses only partly transcend the problems they pose. I recalled a blog post I read last week. Lizzy Kremer writes (here):
Once a character understands his or her own journey, he or she can act with purpose; make a decision which can become the pivot on which the book turns.
This! I thought to myself, is what I wanted to happen in ‘Honour’. An aha moment for one of Shafak’s beautifully drawn protagonists. So the reader can start to engage with the optimism of the arc. Without the twist of a character’s insight, I am reminded of Thomas Hardy’s relentless commitment to Tess of the Durbevilles’ struggle. The experience is heartbreaking.
The cafe was warm. We talked about judgement and gender, ‘Honour’ and shame; Shafak addresses vast human themes with a storyteller’s descriptive eye. In the caffeined chatter of the American chain the discussion moved on. Then fired up a little. I thought: I am at a banquet of readers.
One group member said she wanted more classics. ‘Dickens’ was briefly bandied. Somebody brought up Anna Karenina and its 864 pages. I was transported to college days in a blink, thumbing pages against the clock’s slow hand, but the prospect felt somehow less arduous this time.
A few days after the meeting, I received an email about the next one. It would be after Ramadan, two and a half months away. Our upcoming feast: a serialised book published in 1878. Russian.
I’ve started to tuck in, the pages are flying by. It must be that yarn-spinning style from The Novel’s great era, and, rather delightfully, according to Kindle there’s still 98% of it left to be read.
What makes a great novel? Which book would you recommend for a book club? Your comments are always welcome… 🙂