Ameena Hussein’s stunning debut novel The Moon in the Water carries as its epigraph the words of Jalaludeen Rumi: “Look for the Moon in the Sky, not in the Water!” In this exhortation is captured the paradox of the search for identity: although singular to each of us, it is never to be found in a single place. The novel takes us on a powerful journey through one woman’s search for identity. It is a search that will expand to involve others’ quests for this elusive feeling of belonging, in a highly sophisticated narrative in which the threads of each character’s story are skillfully interwoven with those of the rest. Beginning as a result of a sudden death, this journey is embarked upon in sadness, the result of a revelation both unsought and unwanted. And yet it is one of the remarkable achievements of the novel to suggest ultimately the possibilities for joy inherent in even the most distressing discovery of truth. Indeed whilst the search for origin is shown to require an initial turning away from reflections and distortions of reality, the suggestion is equally clear by novel’s end that this search need not neglect or negate the gifts such secondary manifestations may bring in their wake. It is in turn the gift of this suggestion to show us that truth itself has many forms: as many as the differing shapes and shades of the moon.
Set mostly in Sri Lanka in the latter stages of 2004 and early 2005, the novel moves quickly to capture our attention by setting out the striking contrasts in the life of the young woman around whom the early pages of the story revolve. Apparently born into a Muslim family in Colombo and raised with expectations of an arranged marriage, Khadeeja has nevertheless been educated in America and is working in Geneva where she lives with a man of her own choice at the point at which the novel begins. On the romantic trip to Spain on which she will learn of the news that hurries her back to Colombo, she muses on the contradictions of her situation:
Sometimes, she thought . . . she would have liked to have
had a relationship with a Sri Lankan man. It was tiresome
to have to explain everything from the simplest cultural
reference to what you are, to how you are, to how you
pronounced words (p.16).
This comparatively rather light-hearted introduction to the complications of Khadeeja’s particular individuality nevertheless sets the stage for the novel’s deeper reflections on the complexities inherent in the very question of identity. Is it a matter of origin or of choice? Are origins as important as present attachment? In what way do we define our beginnings, whether as individuals or in community with one another? And to what extent does it even matter? These are the questions invited by a narrative structure working at one with the fragmentary nature of human experience such that we accompany the central characters as they unravel the threads making up the fabric of their lives. The intimacy with the characters into which the reader is thus drawn is compelling; alternately playful and poignant, the novel moves swiftly and with the sense of inevitability only possible in fiction where character has been deeply exposed; indeed laid bare. It is a testimony to the success of this technique that while the events of the novel clearly occur at a particular historical time and place, its characters are of interest for their own sake, their dilemmas and perplexities engaging and remaining with us long after we have turned its last page.
In telling the story of her novel, Hussein aptly exploits all modern media of communication, drawing us still closer to the lives of her characters by allowing us to see them in their own words, both written and spoken, as well as in those of others. This narrative technique allows as a backdrop to the main story, a chronicle of changing times and mores to unfold: Khadeeja’s generation, we are told, having “had the burden of being the link between the old world and the new. Between pre-man in the moon and post. Between letters and e-mail”(p.18). But ultimately the work suggests that no generation exists only in the present; indeed the novelist deftly and movingly brings to life the reality that much of the present is accessible only through the past. As the details and dropped threads of her characters’ previous experiences are vividly brought to life, the decisions presently facing the main character become both more urgent and more difficult. This adept counter-pointing of the past with the present enables Hussein to achieve that most difficult of the challenges inherent in tackling the form of the novel: the credible development of a character over a significant period of time. That she is able to do this while keeping the main story line working over the space of only a few months is remarkable. Equally remarkable is the way in which she portrays the circumstances of her story in a manner uniquely suited to the times and the places in which it occurs; indeed one chapter departs entirely from conventional narrative and even sentence structure, the originality of the resulting form aptly conveying the singularity of the moment it seeks to capture.
One of the many gifts of this novel is that it stands as testimony to the notion so pithily expressed by Uchendu, a wise elder in Chinua Achebe’s iconic novel Things Fall Apart: “There is no story that is not true”. In charting the difficult map of her characters’ personal journeys, Hussein achieves a delicate balance between the twin needs for accuracy and subjective understanding in rendering the details of a given situation. Alternating between an omniscient third-person narrator and the first-person voices of those whose personal histories together constitute the present, the novel makes us more acutely aware that the search for truth involves something greater than mere verisimilitude. It is this rare achievement that lifts the novel so particularly, allowing it the status of a work that may be expected to last the test of time. Already selected for inclusion in the long list for the Man Asia Literary Prize, The Moon in the Water may be expected to remain at the forefront of contemporary fiction; it is a highly original and accomplished contribution to the genre.
Reviewed by: Jill Macdonald (M.Phil.Oxon), principal of The Study