Abdulrazak Gurnah, a writer born in Zanzibar and now teaching writing in England, has often focused on the many issues of immigration - the difficulties of immigrants in adjusting to a new culture, the guilt sometimes felt about the family and culture left behind, and, ultimately, the confusion about what "home" means and the sometimes painful, almost physical, yearning for it. This novel, his most detailed and complex analysis of immigration and its personal effects yet, is a multigenerational novel which opens with Abbas, a sixty-three-year-old man whose origins are, at first, unknown. On his way home from work, one extremely cold day, he becomes so ill that this proud man "wishes for someone to pick him up and carry him home," and when he finally arrives at home, he collapses. When he is taken to the hospital, unable to speak, he is full of regrets for all that he has never told his family.
Hanna, the daughter of Abbas and his wife Maryam, works as a teacher, while their son Jamal is working on a doctorate tracing migration patterns from Africa and Asia into England. Both children have failed to put down roots, though they are British citizens. Jamal believes, regarding his father, that there was something to be ashamed of, something that had been with him most of his life." Anna declares that "They are lost...Ba deliberately lost himself a long time ago, and Ma found herself lost from the beginning." It is not until well into the novel that Abbas's story emerges.
In the meantime, the stories of his wife Maryam, his children Hanna (Anna) and Jamal, and their relationships with each other unfold in detail, the points of view shifting among these four characters as Abbas relearns how to speak and work himself up to telling, finally, the secrets he has hidden for thirty years. The love affairs of the children, Anna and Jamal, and their changes of cities, apartments, and houses (possibly looking for the symbolic "perfect home") dominate much of the middle of the novel, while the childhood memories of Abbas and Maryam, as they unfold, add to the understanding of their sense of isolation.
Occasionally, the novel becomes melodramatic, and in a few cases, even predictable, as the author attempts to illustrate every conceivable aspect of the immigrant experience, a goal which sometimes leads to too much detail about the many peripheral characters, some of whom might have been eliminated without losing focus. Still, the novel fascinates, in part because it is so much more complex in its goals and structure than Gurnah's previous novels have been. As I read, I could not help but think that the author himself was deliberately summing up the threads and themes of all many of his previous novels, writing this one as his grand statement.