Wendy Wallace takes us from the abandoned Sudanese girl Leila's early childhood right through to her 40s, by which time she is running a centre for abandoned babies and children in Khartoum. Wallace writes in the first person and evokes Leila's suffering during her difficult, loveless childhood with tremendous compassion but never pity. Leila has the same needs, dreams and desires as any six year old girl anywhere in the world, and the author seems to have effortlessly got right inside her head and to recognise her feelings of isolation.
Right from the start we see that Leila has a strong inner core that will sustain her through the unimaginable horrors ahead, including abuse from her carers, or nannies as they are called, and genital mutilation when she is l2. Wallace could never have written about Sudan so authentically without having spent a lot of time there, and when she describes the smell of sesame seeds roasting or falafel cooking, we can almost taste it, as I could the desert dust in the back of my throat as I turned the pages.
It is harrowing to grasp through Leila's experiences the realities of growing up in a society that allows middle aged men to marry children, while women who have sex outside of such 'marriages', decided in mosques by men who sign womens' lives away without their consent, are regarded as no better than prostitutes and cast out by society. It is mostly the products of these 'unholy' liaisons who are the abandoned babies Wallace writes of, but she does it without judgement or malice, allowing Leila's experience to speak for itself.
This is a giant of a book that reads more like a novel than a biography. Think of Slumdog Millionaire, except that the prize at the end is that Leila survives to help other abandoned children. If that sounds worthy, it shouldn't. Wallace writes with deep affection for Sudan, and with heartfelt respect for a woman who has, relatively speaking, flourished against the odds and brought some love into the lives of these unwanted, stigmatized children who are cast out by wider Sudanese society through no fault of their own. I couldn't put it down.