Monday 28 December 2009

Book review: The Jewel of Medina — by Sherry Jones

The Jewel of Medina had been in my pre-order/save for later list on Amazon for many months, waiting for it to be finally published. The self-censorship chill surrounding this novel after it was unceremoniously pulled by publisher Random House had piqued my interest in what could have made them so jumpy, given that until they received an unfavourable report from one of their pre-publication readers they were keen to spend tons of money to promote it. Then the British publisher was bombed and yet again the book was withdrawn.

But when I saw that this story of Muhammad's favourite wife was available on Amazon's Kindle Store, for immediate download, I requested a free sample (which Amazon allows Kindle users to do) and a minute later I was reading it. It seemed like a straightforward fictional tale about some recognisable historical figures, told using unfamiliar-to-me terminology (which I later found explained in a glossary at the end of the book).

When I reached the end of the substantial sample I ordered the whole novel, and in another minute I was able to continue where I left off. (Why am I boring you with the technicalities of Kindle readership? Because The Jewel of Medina was the first novel I purchased for my new Kindle e-reader, that's why.)

Much has been made of the Prophet's paedophilic tendencies in taking a wife aged nine years (she was betrothed to him at age six), but in this fictional account of her marriage to Muhammad, though A'isha is indeed married aged nine, it's not until she is 15 that her marriage is consummated. I've no idea how accurate this narrative is. Sherry Jones, the author, who is not a Muslim, explains in a Q & A at the end of the book that she did take certain liberties with the historical account, but this particular aspect is not mentioned.

Being the first-person story of a child, this is inevitably a self-centred story. A'isha is headstrong and full of her own importance, alternating with bouts of extreme self-doubt, with the result that her fickleness tends to tedium after a while. The shallowness of her vision is reflected in the narrative, though this might be expected in a child's story. It might also explain why we never get any real sense of place; Mecca and Medina are locations of geographical uniqueness, but A'isha, constrained as she is in purdah and subsequently in Muhammad's harem, tells us little of what these places are like. She makes frequent visits to the poor in a "tent city" but all too frequently we are confined in her thoughts of other things.

At one point she runs away, almost indulging in a fling with her childhood sweetheart — this is giving nothing away, as the conclusion of this event is what opens the story. Unfortunately it looks as if this messing with the structure of the novel might have been done at the last minute, as the text appears to have been simply clipped from the middle of the novel and plonked on to the beginning, with only rudimentary attempts to fix the ragged edges left behind.

There are some moments of pithy and evocative writing towards the end of the novel, but not enough to balance the shallow and often leaden prose that goes before. This may have been the author's intention, to show A'isha's outlook and intellect maturing, but it seems ill-judged to fetter the majority of the narrative for such small effect.

One aspect of the novel's style, which I'm assuming isn't an artefact of its formatting for the Kindle, is an unconventional quirk in the way dialogue is shown. Conventionally, when someone speaks and then someone else speaks — whether or not there are dialogue tags (he said, she said and the like) — the second speaker's words are shown in quotation marks, but in a new paragraph. Many times this format is used in The Jewel of Medina, but it turns out that the same person is speaking. Unfortunately this format quirk isn't sufficiently different from the conventionally accepted (and most popular) style, with the result that it simply confused me, and I had to stop and re-read. Anything that drops the reader out of the narrative is undesirable and an impediment to good novelistic style.

The Jewel of Medina is not a bad book, but it isn't a particularly good one either. Its interest lies in its historical subject matter and, inevitably, the controversy surrounding it. I read somewhere that the novel, dealing with the Prophet's intimate relations with his wives, was pornographic. It isn't.