The Lover: A Sufi Mystery, by Laury Silvers
Published with Kindle Direct Publishing, 2019
I recently had the pleasure of reading the historical novel everyone’s talking about – The Lover: A Sufi Mystery by Laury Silvers. Being familiar with Silvers’ academic work, I trusted this book wouldn’t be a disappointment, and I wasn’t wrong. I read it immediately after getting it (in August!), although I had planned to read it slowly and internalize every part of the story so that I could write this review, but I actually got so lost in the story that I forgot I wanted to review it. I was so absorbed in the story I read it for sheer fun the first time around and decided I’ll return to it in order to write this review. I have no regrets. (P.S. I’m always looking for excellent fiction so please feel free to share your favorite fiction. That’s how I take care of myself as an academic. Turns out, bonus points if it’s got religious themes, is historically grounded and credible, and has empowering and strong-willed female characters. No, wait, the last point is an essential; if your recommendation doesn’t cover that, I won’t be able to honor it.)
All of that said, truly, after being buried in heavy, academic, non-fiction that has begun to suck out every iota of energy in me, I found this book to be refreshing. And needed for nourishing my soul. It had everything I look for a good story: humor; fun, relatable, complicated characters who challenge your assumptions and expectations in powerful ways; real women (as opposed to an oversimplified patriarchal idea of an imagined woman all women should be aspiring to); mystery; real conversations/dialogue; a little bit of romance (I don’t mind a lot of romance, either); scenes so well-depicted I feel like I’m a part of the story; anecdotes, events, characters, parts of the story that inspire some serious kind of response from me—excitement, anger, deep happiness. And, not to spoil the ending or anything but, either a very satisfying ending or an ending that I have some kind of thoughts about. The Lover, ultimately, is the whole package.
There were moments where I felt chills going down my body, and I made note of them (e.g., p. 129) so that I can come back and re-read them whenever I need to; there were other moments when I wanted to scream on behalf of the character(s) in question. It is hilarious and deep at the same time. The dialogue is well thought-out, relatable, realistic. And empowering. The things I want to say about hadiths, this book does greatly through its characters. The complicatedness of all individuals, of all Muslims, this book depicts in a way that’s relatable. It was hard for me to hate any of the characters except this one who I thought was either the murderer or at least responsible for it, but I was both surprised and relieved that it wasn’t. For weird reasons, but that’s partly what I mean that the characters in this book transcend our expectations and, in my case, really, stereotypes and assumptions. I felt sorry for this particular character, because of my own feelings about them, once I got to the end.
Silvers has stated in interviews (e.g., New Books in Islamic Studies podcast) that this historical fiction is a product of her research, and it shows. It takes place in historical Baghdad, 10th century CE (907 to be exact). As I read about the characters, their occupations—including hadith narrators and transmitters—the people’s daily activities, their surroundings, the design of the city, I as a reader could easily imagine myself being there. Having visited several Arab countries, I could also see parts of those historical descriptions, imagining them according to my own strolls throughout ancient Arab cities.
The book’s strength lies in its consistent centering of the marginalized, folks who are otherwise and elsewhere not recognized as relevant and significant enough to be the center of a story. The main character, Zaytuna, is a black woman, a Nubian, who witnessed the rape of her Sufi and wandering, homeless mother, in a mosque no less—while the imam watched silently and chose to do nothing. Zaytuna’s last name is feminine—she is Zaytuna bint al-Ashiqa as-Swada al-Shuniziyya (“the Black Lover,” as her brother is ridiculed by men for his last name; he chose his mother’s last name and not his father’s, they mock). The story revolves around the mysterious death of a child of the town, parentless and family-less, who works for a family in the area; and the person who brings this to the town’s attention is also a small poor child who makes a living working for a family in the neighborhood by washing their clothes. There is even the scholar of Islam who’s a wine-seller! The reality of the many different ways of being a Muslim woman (or a Muslim, period) is treated as a matter of fact, a normal thing that happens, rather than as an exception; it’s presented so casually and effortlessly, sewn into the fabric of the story instead of as an aside or a marginal, shocking thing that happens. There are religious Muslim male characters, for example, who show affection towards women they’re not related to (their non-mahram) and ignore the rigid and gendered expectations most Muslims grow up with and expect of religious scholars. There’s also a Muslim female character who casually expresses her sexual desires and interest in men. But there are also the usual boring ones, the hypocritical and misogynistic pains from hell who, for instance, think it’s funny that anyone thinks it matters whether a woman they marry loves them back or not because women are only objects to them; or who visibly look bothered by women challenging them; or who have no problem sleeping with women outside of marriage but make an issue of women studying with men. The vivid descriptions of these moments, scenes, and characters help make them sound realistic as well.
And thus the theme of marginalization, of centering the unknown and the seldom-heard-of people, is a necessary and obvious one throughout the story. The mystery is solved by these marginalized people, it is in the interest of these marginalized characters, and they have only each other to rely on in the process of solving it because those with resources think of it as trivial and irrelevant, a waste of their time.
The dialogue is exceptionally well-done. The topics of discussion range from hadith and the politics of authenticity, the raw rage that Zaytuna feels towards God and towards her mother that she expresses to someone she trusts in hopes of receiving guidance about forgiveness and letting go in peace, women killing patriarchy both by existing and being themselves and by challenging it, male allies who use their privilege for the betterment of society (important note: I crushed hard on Mustafa), questions about the authenticity and authority of hadiths and their impact, and other topics the community argues and cares about, like whether the best place for a woman to pray in is indeed the closet (yeah, that’s a thing in patriarchy, sadly). But even in those moments, the female characters are aware and knowledgeable enough to know not to give credit to the male allies when they, the women, have things covered themselves. These moments in the story are a thrill for me.
I’ve been thinking about what a legitimate, fair critique of the book might be, since nothing is perfect and everything has room for growth. But the only thing I can think of is that important Arabic terms are occasionally misspelled or used incorrectly – e.g., the basmalah is spelled as basmillah (p 113) and labbayk as labayk (p. 44), but these are likely typos so nothing consequential.
The book would appeal to anyone interested in the genres of mystery and historical fiction; academics, students, professionals, and others interested in all things Islam; and anyone empowered and inspired by strong female characters. It’s accessible (the meanings of Arabic terms used in the text are clear from their context), easy to read, and would make for a fun and useful text especially in undergraduate courses and book clubs around the themes of religion, gender, and history.
P.S. The last scene of the book is very powerful!
P.P.S. Readers can expect The Jealous: A Sufi Mystery in 2020, the next in the series.
Categories: Death to patriarchy