A Pure Heart tells the story of two sisters, Rose and Gameela. Although both born in Egypt, their lives end up following quite different paths. Rose’s choices take her to America and she marries American journalist Mark, whereas Gameela is deeply devoted to her homeland and her religion. The novel is set during the aftermath of Egypt’s revolution, when Gameela’s sudden death in a suicide bombing sets Rose on a journey to reconnect with her sister’s life and to discover what led to this terrible fate.
At the beginning of the novel, the grieving Rose is frantically collecting a selection of Gameela’s belongings from her home in Egypt to help uncover the truth behind her death. These objects, like the artefacts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art where Rose works, hold clues to history and lead Rose, and the reader, into Gameela’s past. This element of mystery makes this book so compelling and readable – piece by piece the story slots into place. It is all woven together so beautifully too, with great attention to detail and care for both people and places.
The two sisters are set up as very opposing characters, which in the wrong hands could have come across as quite cliched. But it seemed to me that one of the main drivers behind the story was to break down the simple divisions it establishes in the outset. The characters come to realise that they perhaps didn’t know each other, or indeed themselves, in quite the same way they thought they did. As Rose desperately tries to come to terms with Gameela’s death, she uncovers truths about her that she cannot fit into her neat picture of her religious sister. We see Gameela’s struggle to understand her complex feelings about how her sister can so easily turn her back on her country and even her own identity (deciding to go by the name Rose instead of her birth name Fayrouz). Even Rose’s husband Mark, who (a little pompously) thinks he can separate and control the different versions of himself he presents to the world, finds his philosophy challenged and shaken by the events that unfold in the novel.
The novel beautifully explores sisterhood, although there’s perhaps not as much of a focus on this aspect as I’d expected. Instead for me, it is Egypt that could be considered the central character of this novel. While much of the story is told through the perspective of either Rose or Gameela, we also hear from many other characters. This has the effect of presenting us with a wide range of perspectives on Egypt and its different layers, histories and cultures. We see Egypt through the eyes of Mark, who although has a chameleon-like ability to adapt to his surroundings, is still an outsider as an American. We see it through Saaber, a young boy living in one of Cario’s slums, Ashwaeyat (The Randoms). I always find fiction a powerful way to learn more about a country’s cultural and political background, and found the balance between the wider context and the focus on individual characters worked well in A Pure Heart.
A Pure Heart by Rajia Hassib publishes in the UK on 9th January 2020, with Sceptre. Many thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
Sophie @Sophie_Jo_Books 📚🐾