Mining her own family’s experience, Zeniter spans three generations of a Kabyle (Berber) clan from the craggily beautiful mountain country south-east of Algiers. In the 1950s, grandfather Ali — whose ‘cyclical’ village life has continued at an idyllic distance from events — falls into the pro-French harki camp almost by accident. Ali opts to ‘seek protection from murderers he despised with other murderers he despised’. As the FLN guerrillas force French withdrawal in 1962, he and his children escape the reprisal massacres that slaughtered Arab or Kabyle ‘traitors’.
This is the story of Naima, who, in modern-day Paris, attempts to uncover the history of her French-Algerian family. The tale spans three generations and includes Naima’s grandfather’s escape to France following the outbreak of the Algerian Revolution, her father’s subsequent attempt to leave behind his roots, and her own disconnection from this original homeland. This pacy, complex piece of historical fiction (which was nominated for France’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt) explores the tangled reality of identity.
Despite postmodern flourishes — suggesting then denying Naïma is the author — this is an old-fashioned family saga, yet because it deals with immigration, nationalism and Islam, it speaks urgently to our time, particularly as Naïma confronts dilemmas facing even second-generation immigrants. The moral weight of her story is won through the superbly handled earlier sections dealing with the complexities of Ali’s loyalties during the war of independence, as Zeniter evenly catalogues the atrocities on both sides. Through Hamid she shows how immigrant families fracture down the generations, alienated from their roots while still not fitting into their host society.