The Guardians of Erum and the Calamitous Child of Socotra
by A. Ali Hasan Ali
This epic tale is set in pre-Islamic Arabia and primarily follows a date farmer, Fada (mainly known as Fad in the story), who journeys to find his newborn son, Dileel. Dileel has been kidnapped as he was born under the Serpent-Neck star which presages death and destruction. In his quest to find his son before he is sacrificed, Fad traverses through hostile and unknown terrain and encounters occultists, mythical beings, jinn masters, seers and healers, some of whom help Fad and others who try to hinder his voyage.
‘Epic’ is certainly the word for this book. It is in three parts; each part concerned with a geographical element of Fad’s journey and I found this to be an absorbing, profound and, at times, quite staggering read. Ali certainly has a fairly limitless depth to his imagination and story-telling. The plot, although simply following Fad’s retrieval of his son, has so many little side-narratives and interesting, well-drawn characters that it shows a complexity and continuity that many writers do not possess even after writing several novels. I did feel as if I was reading a well-honed classic in the tradition of Arabian Nights, you can imagine elements of Guardians being told at bedtimes the world over; it contains that folkloric, fairy story aspect that works so well when spoken and/or dramatised. There is some beautiful imagery in Ali’s writing, almost to poetry in some passages. The metaphor involving the hourglass at the beginning of Chapter 8 and the description of the Gray Palace at the start of Chapter 29 stand out in this respect for me. Each time I picked The Guardians up, I really was immersed into the culture, the age and the story. All of which I found fascinating and I put the book down knowing I had received an education.
However, I did find the first few chapters a little dense. We are ‘told’ far too much at times. Ali is a writer who clearly thinks very carefully about the reader’s reaction and feels that he must make sure we are aware of all the plot nuances, which is very considerate but did occasionally make for some lengthy descriptive writing and dialogue. Personally, I thought Part 3, ‘Socotra’, was the stronger. The writing was sharper, lighter and more concise than the previous two parts and resultingly, the narrative picked up speed. I felt Ali found more confidence as a writer and had some fun with the characters and the plot despite the majority of this section heading towards the conclusion. For a writer whose first language is not English, this book is a breath-taking achievement. Technically, the writing and editing were near faultless; my one gripe would be the overuse of exclamation marks. They weakened the effect of the foregoing passages to which they were attached. Although parts of Fad’s quest are shot through with little pockets of humour, the exclamation marks were not required.
Overall, I thought this was a remarkable book that I will remain thinking about for some while. It is not a light read by any means, it is an investment and one I would highly recommend making.