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Thursday, 29 November 2012

Book Review: Suzanne Ruta's "To Algeria, with Love"

"I once knew Algeria by heart. I had it from a direct source, temporarily located in France but honest, voluble and passionate."

I was intrigued by To Algeria, with Love when I was contacted by the author Suzanne Ruta a few months ago. I hadn't heard about this novel prior to her contacting me, but as I was also interested in learning more about North African literature, I thought it'd be interesting to read a story with some focus on Algeria. Also not being Algerian and not knowing much about it, I felt I could read this novel without prejudice or bias, as I too, like the main character in the novel, would be learning about Algeria as an outsider. On receiving the book, and a personalised note from Suzanne Ruta (thank you), I was anxious to learn what this novel had to offer. Sadly, it took me longer than I had hoped to start reading it. Thankfully, I was finally able to read it (my extremely long daily commute has been excellent for my reading). So where do I begin with To Algeria, with Love?

Louise, a Jewish-American women in her 60s, is introduced to an exiled Algerian writer visiting New York. Here is where she tells her tale of love and loss. In 1961, she won a Fulbright scholarship to study in France. There she met Ahmed Ouali, nicknamed Wally, an older married Algerian factory worker who lived and worked in France to support his wife and 3 kids back home. Louise fell madly and deeply in love with Wally and through him learned a lot about France (the proper way to drink red wine and speak in French slang), Algeria (The Algerian war of Independence and some Algerian history, such as French colonial schools which was closed to most Arabs), and even the connections between both countries (Edith Piaf's grandmother was Algerian). There was only so long their love affair could last. Algeria was close to gaining Independence and Wally eventually had to return home to be with his family. His return meant a great loss for Louise, but she also made a decision which has haunted her ever since. 

To Algeria, with Love felt real. It felt like there was a woman in her 60s right now in New York looking back at her life and the choices she made. Her story spans several decades, and in that time Louise visited/lived in many countries (France, Switzerland, England to name a few), and I could visualise it all - her in her relatives home in the UK, Wally's home in France, the interesting dialogue she had with Wally. As this was Louise's story, you never really here from Wally, other than through her version of him - and I couldn't help but wonder if her time with him may have been over-romanticised. 

I went into the book wanting to know how Louise, as a non-Algerian would view the country, its people and its history, but in the end, it was always going to be about Wally, the times they spent together, and the love she had for him. While I did learn more about Algeria  - for instance, the Algerian War of Independence, as well as the 1988 October Riots -  in the end it wasn't really Algeria but the "Republic of Wally" that was at the centre of this novel. This is what made To Algeria, with Love be the deeply moving tale that it was. It showcased Algeria through Louise eyes, but you also felt intertwined with Louise - her love for Wally and her eventual loss. You can imagine a woman torn with grief for decades over the decisions she made, and you feel this through the pages. 

3.5 out of 5

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