An Average Book by an Outstanding Writer
If you tend to judge a book by its cover, you may feel hard-pressed to guess what Heba El Sagheer means by the title of her novel “The Silkworm”. As you start reading, you will come to understand that El Sagheer uses the transformation of a silkworm to a butterfly as a metaphor for change, referring to the changes that happen to people throughout their life.
Set in pre-revolutionary Cairo, this Arabic novel follows the story of stay-at-home wife Batalah (Arabic for heroine), who harbors a deep loneliness in her heart because her husband, Jawwad, is always away on business. Tired of spending all her time by herself and seeking some form of human companionship, Batalah tries to reconnect with her old friends and invites them over to her place. While her friends stand in awe at the grandeur of her two-story villa, Batalah does not see the true value of the blessings that surround her and feels nothing but longing for her ever-absent husband.
The novel also loosely follows the stories of Batalah’s friends, Ashraf, Ahmed and Mona. Ashraf, a writer and poet who dreams of publishing his first book, is under pressure to accept a corporate job to make a more decent living. Ahmed and Mona are a married couple who consider leaving the country in search of a better life. This group of friends discuss politics and the current economic situation in Egypt, and in their stories, El Sagheer sheds light on a plethora of problems that face our generation.
However, the author does not simply stop at that; she also introduces other characters and their more complex stories. Readers are familiarized with Sameer, Batalah’s scientist brother who lives in the USA, and his friends. Through recounting their stories, El Sagheer refers to how skilled and competent scientists work and live in the West, depriving their poorer home countries of their knowledge.
The downfall of “The Silkworm” is that there is no main problem that’s solution gets revealed by the end of the book. The plot has no climax, and at times you may feel that you are hurriedly flipping through the pages, not because you are so eager to find out what will happen next, but because you are waiting for something significant to happen. The novel features so many stories that El Sagheer is trying to weave together and, as a result, some of the main characters seem disconnected and their lives do not stand on common ground.
Another problem is that she has tried to tackle way too many problems in a single book, adding several unrelated subplots. Some of the characters and consequently their stories contribute little to the main flow of events, if you can identify what the main flow of events actually is. El Sagheer has written, for example, that Ashraf is in love with Batalah, a plot twist that could have added a lot of depth to the story but that the author mentions only in passing.
She expands her story to cover topics that go beyond the problems of twenty-something Egyptians. She also refers to more complicated problems of the Middle East such as delayed scientific progress, corrupt presidents and how terrorism is in fact an American invention. However, the author has not succeeded in making a strong connection between the main characters’ stories and these themes.
As for the development of the characters, El Sagheer has not done them enough justice. Most of the characters are unpredictable, and at times, it is difficult to understand the motives behind their actions. For instance, Batalah has an emotional meltdown, goes over to her father’s house, and has an angry outburst, blaming him for almost everything that went wrong in her life. However, this sort of action was difficult to swallow as from the beginning of the novel and up to this point, Batalah’s problems seemed to be summarized in the boredom and loneliness she felt when her husband was away. On very rare occasions did she express anger at her father for remarrying after her mother’s death.
Another incident that showed the lack of maturity of the characters was when at the end of the novel, Batalah’s husband informs her that he was involved in a Jihadi organization in Iraq before they got married. Throughout the novel, he was always the hard-working businessman, showing absolutely no signs that he was even remotely interested in such a thing. Just like us mere readers, Batalah was also surprised at the news, which makes the whole issue more bizarre since they had known each other since college.
Furthermore, some of the coincidences incorporated in the novel are not really believable. The incident through which we find out that Jawwad is married to another woman has got to raise a few eyebrows, especially given the fact that said second wife is from Jordan. Batalah’s cousin meets the Jordanian wife by chance and sees a photo of Jawwad in her wallet. One has got to wonder however, what are the chances of a Jordanian woman coming all the way to Egypt and meeting Batalah’s cousin specifically? Even if we assume that this is plausible enough, what are the chances that the cousin would stumble upon Jawwad’s photo in the woman’s wallet?
El Sagheer is a talented writer who is capable of creating powerful imagery, and it is refreshing to see a thoroughly researched novel by an up-and-coming young writer, but “The Silkworm” does not rise above being a mediocre book.
If El Sagheer had focused on developing a solid main storyline, the book would have read like a more coherent whole. However, truth be told, it is her first novel, and it is very likely that her story telling skills will become much sharper by the time she publishes her second.