Mathilde, the protagonist of Leila Slimani’s “In the Country of Others,” is “a foreigner, a woman, a wife, a being at the mercy of others.” She meets her future husband, Amine, a Moroccan officer stationed in her Alsatian village, in the autumn of 1944 as the German occupation of France comes to an end.
Wide-eyed and “hungry for life,” she follows him to Morocco. She travels for days: from Strasbourg to Paris, Paris to Marseille, Marseille to Algiers, then spends hours on a rickety plane to Rabat, where the couple reunites under the sea-washed sky.
In this first volume of a planned trilogy of novels about race and women’s empowerment, Slimani draws on personal family history. Like Mathilde, Slimani’s Alsatian grandmother fell in love with a Moroccan colonel during the war, and the Franco-Moroccan author grew up in Rabat.
A winner of the 2016 Prix Goncourt for “The Perfect Nanny,” Slimani shines through the rise and fall of tension in her novels. Her willowy prose is dense with emotional depth and insight, and blunt observations elucidate every scene with force.
Dynamic female characters dominate the book. Mathilde is tasked with raising her children and assimilating into a foreign country. Her little daughter, Aicha, triumphs over bullying at her French Catholic school to emerge at the top of her class. Amine’s teenage sister, Selma, seeks an independent identity as a modern woman. “What we’re hiding,” Selma thinks, “under our veils and our skirts, is so fiery and glorious that we might betray anything for it.”
Although the novel is set during an era of growing anti-colonialist fervor, Slimani distances the women from overt politics, and we are reminded that the realm of women is domestic.
Amine, despite his landowning status and service in the military, faces constant bigotry from the French: “They can say what they like,” says his French neighbor, “but this place will be a [expletive] once we’re no longer here to make the trees bloom, to turn over the earth, to water it with our sweat.” The wreckage of colonization is most evident in the raging thoughts Amine keeps to himself.
Race plays a somewhat delicate role. Mathilde is a tall, fair-skinned French woman. As she observes Africa — the landscape, the unfamiliar food, the children playing in the streets — Africa observes her. “Her height, her whiteness, her status as a foreign woman all combined to keep her at a distance from the heart of things,” Slimani writes.
Seen through the eyes of a white woman, colonialism is never brutal. Instead it reveals itself in the way her mother-in-law refuses to let her, an educated European woman, into the kitchen or the way her daughter’s white friends assume her father to be the chauffeur. The scrutiny of the natives — the bellboy who refuses to speak French to Amine and Mathilde — and the judgment of her own kind — two French women who mock her for being “pregnant by an Arab” — further complicate this dynamic. These subtle yet visceral attacks feel like punches to the gut. Slimani wields tight control of conflict, and when these passing moments escalate into disaster, its consequences feel acute yet inevitable.
As the nationalist movement turns to violence, the family becomes like a grafted lemon branch on an orange tree, which Aicha names “lemange.” “We are like your tree: half lemon and half orange,” Amine tells Aicha. “We’re not on either side.”
In the end, do the women get what they want? In defiance of social customs, Mathilde becomes a village medic, teaching herself to treat basic wounds and ailments. But her medical charity, a minor plot point that doesn’t make much progress, feels self-indulgent. Selma is forced into marriage with an older man, and Aicha doesn’t understand but knows enough to conclude that “there was something called misfortune and men were capable of cruelty.” Danger mixes with pleasure, and this desperate panic of womanhood feels strangely universal.
At times, these appeals to feminism feel overdone. The characters, who seem otherwise unable to navigate their positions in the world, are suspiciously articulate in their internal observations. Slimani spells out for us how the nationalist movement roaring in the streets is meant to analogize women’s liberation: “Didn’t the nationalists themselves make a direct link between the desire for independence and the need for women’s emancipation?”
Although Slimani’s prose, translated from the French by Sam Taylor, is stunning, the narrative structure, strung together in vignettes, is at times hazy, obscuring chronology. The book’s strength lies in its ability to interweave these disparate pieces into a satisfying if infuriating look at how power works in the struggle for independence, both personal and political.
IN THE COUNTRY OF OTHERS
By Leila Slimani
Penguin Books, 320 pp., $26
Kyung Mi Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @_kyungmilee