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on 29 June 2001
I really loved this book. Four travellers from every corner of the Arab world are thrown briefly together when their inbound jet to Heathrow hits a patch of turbulence. The novel charts their "pilgrims' progress" through turn of the 21st century London. From the first page you know you are in for a treat: here is a writer who loves her characters and wants you to love them too. She has that brilliant gift of making quite ordinary things and activities totally compelling. The comedy is beautifully handled (like Barbara Pym) and I laughed out loud at the scenes with Samir and his monkey and the "Princess" and her scams. For an English reader this book has opened up a side of London that I had never really "seen" before and for this I am very grateful. Next stop? Edgware Road and The Ranoush Cafe!
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on 23 September 2002
Salman Rushdie is not one of my favourite authors, nor do I find his commentary on society particularly helpful, so seeing his name on the cover of a book is more likely to turn me away from it than to attract me to it. However, in this case he is quoted describing one of the author's previous books, Beirut Blues, thus: 'Should be read by everyone who cares about the more enduring, and universal, truths of the heart.' Having read Only in London W2, I can see why Hanan Al-Shaykh might have earned this description.
This book trips along at a jogger's pace, neither too fast as to lose the atmosphere, nor too slow as to bore the reader. It unravels the lives of each individual, the strains they are under, the naivety of their thinking, regardless of their 'intelligence' or position in society, cutting back to the raw humanity in them. It illustrates the struggle between the need to survive in this world with the natural human urge to relate to others.
If you were looking for a travelogue for the Edgware Road (which is in London W2) then don't let yourself be too disappointed - it isn't but it more than makes up for this!
What it does is leave you with some very cleverly unwrapped truths about each of us as human beings, together with a fascinating exposee of the life of an expatriate in contemporary London. There are lots of books written about ex-pat life from the perspective of the individual FROM the ex-pat's home country - for example, for Brits to read about a Brit in France. But there are very few about a foreigner's experience of living in your own country. This isn't a book for Brits though. It is an excellent insight into the life of an Arab in the 'Western' world. I can't say whether the experiences are true for many Arabs, certainly the characters are too distinctive, but I was left with a powerful (and largely sympathetic) impression of just how tough it is for the vast majority of Arabs to live in our scoiety.
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on 7 November 2005
I made the mistake of suggesting this book to a book group, based on the strength of a Radio 4 review I had heard. I then came on this site and found similarly encouraging reviews. I have felt guilty ever since for almost bringing the group to an end with their first book!
I can only assume that the dazzling reviews that this book has received have been as a result of some desire by the reviewers to tap into what they conceive to be fashionable modern culture. The characterisation and prose do not otherwise deserve anywhere near this praise. Poetic at points, but muddled and dull at many others.
This was a character driven book, the plot taking a back seat and acting more as a vehicle through which the characters could reveal their feelings and personalities. It was a shame therefore that the characters varied from engaging and believable in the form of Amira, to aimless and annoying in Lamis and Nicholas.
I read it quite easily and enjoyed it in parts but feel that someone had to address the outrageous overstating of the merits of this book!
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on 15 April 2015
Have read this book before and ordered it for my 14 year old who loved it. Easy to read, delightful story and loveable, bumbling characters, all suffused with a lovely innocence. One can only love the dusty old Edgware Road after reading this book!
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HALL OF FAMEon 11 March 2003
Hanan Al-Shaykhs writing is effortless, and her characters deeply human, she seems to strike just the right balance and the book has suprising depth considering its size.
The idea of throwing together the different characters as strangers on a jet flying into heathrow which hits some heavy turbulance is inspired, and from that point the lives of each becomes intertwined.
Each of the three arab characters explores a different part of the arabs existence in London, and allows her to observe and examine many aspects of this curious community, revolving around edgeware road and bayswater.
A very well formed novel which is a pleasure to read.
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on 8 July 2009
A bit of a boring book, the story didn't develop enough to make it interesting. It's about three people from Arab countries who meet on a plane back to London, where they live.

One is a woman who has recently divorced her husband, leaving her son with him. She's looking to start a new life without her husband, but feels very isolated on her own in London (she's lived there for many years but does not know many people).

The other woman is a prostitute, who dresses up as an Arabian princess and manages to beg money off rich Arab men ("my brother will pay you back tomorrow, my bag was stolen and I HAVE to pay <something> today").

Then there is a cross-dressing man, who brings back a monkey from Lebanon, and becomes quite attached to it. His wife suspects the bras and lipstick are from a lover and doesn't buy the story that he uses them himself.

So, there are the elements for a good story, but I found the way it was written and the actual development of the story rather boring.
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