Khadija Abdalla Bajaber, The House of Rust, 2021, Graywolf Press.
This delightful magical realism novel follows Aisha, a young woman whose father has disappeared and who will embarked on a boat made of bones to find him.
Aisha is a young woman living in Mombasa. One day, her father who is a fisherman doesn't come back. A cat named Hamza leads her to a boat made of bones. They both sail away to find which monster of the sea holds her father.
The House of Rust is a novel in two parts. While the first one is mostly about the adventures of Aisha and Hamza at sea, the second one deals with the consequences of the adventure.
And those consequences are important. From the beginning, Aisha is a young woman if not dissatisfied with, at least reluctant to enter the life her grand-mother has planned for her: to become a bride, a wife, to entertain other wives. It's not Aisha is wilful or rebellious, but during her adventures at sea, she has to take decisions, she has to take actions. She becomes important and she can see the wide world around her. Nonetheless, she will refuse an offer, and her mundane fate looms again.
I have particularly loved how the character Aisha is linked to some Muslim traditions of Aisha, one of the wives of Muhamad, who was known for her free spirit. Aisha in The House of Rust is obedient, but her obedience hides her free spirit and she suffocates in a society that has expectations of her she doesn't want to fulfil.
At the same time, Aisha's world expands incredibly when she meets Hamza, the scholar's cat. The novel is filled with supernatural creatures--some from the Muslim traditions, some from folk tales. Others are allegories, or come from the writer's imagination. The world is also filled with very natural creatures who are more than they seem, cat, crows, and goats.
The House of Rust looks like a perfect modern legend, down to the wonderful prose and the supernatural, yet none of the characters are the expected archetypes and all vibrate with their own personalities. As with any legend though, some of the meaning is metaphorical and will be yours to understand.
The prose has been a highlight for me. I have loved its rhythm, its structures. It could be both lyrical or sharp and satirical. While the first part was epic, the second took us through a maze, as Aisha dealt with the consequences of her journey.
Coming-of-age stories are rarely my cup of tea, but this one married a beautiful prose with characters that came to life effortlessly. A modern legend, The House of Rust is a story that may remain with you for a long time.
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