Review: Maryam’s Maze by Mansoura Ez Eldin (trans. Paul Starkey, AUC Press, 2008)

Mansoura Ez Eldin’s Maryam’s Maze is a deeply dream-like novel focusing on a woman who is increasingly between worlds in a limbo where dreams and forgetting as well as history collapses. Ez Edlin’s narrator cuts back and forth between Maryam’s fugue-like state in the story present as her boyfriend and the life she knows seems to fade away, and a very mythological seeming childhood at the Palace of El Tagi. Paul Starkey’s translation is extremely readable in precise prose, but without losing that fugue-like quality that the narrative must maintain.

Elements of the novel are deeply rooted in exploration in the relationships between women and their own bodies as well as the way those embodied selves interact with identity in time. The entire saga begins when Maryam’s ghost double stabs her in a dream, and then Maryam awakens in her family flat, her past life seemingly erased and the life of her family playing more and more a dominant role in the narrative. Maryam’s own identity seems to be increasingly subsumed by the relationships and histories of women in her past and the men around her. Furthermore, the line between life and death is crucial to the book as much of it seems to be a mediation on exactly how dreams are like being between life and death, history and self-mythology.   An understanding of Islamic beliefs around spirit doubles and the history of Egypt—as many of Maryam’s ancestors seem to represent different ways Egyptians and the many ethnicities within Egypt reacted in the translation out of the colonial period and into Egypt’s modernity as a nation are crucial. Nasr and other events in modern Egyptian history make appearances in various places into the background of Maryam’s life.

Female bodies, ghosts, the shadows of male figures that seem almost entirely exterior paint the book. Ez Eldin’s style is fragmented, bold, and highly lyrical in Starkey’s translation and I imagine even more powerful in the original Arabic. The cultural context enriches the interiority of Maryam, but it is not dependent on it. Ez Eldin seems keenly interested in humanity as whole as well as woman in general—Maryam’s particularities and the boldness of the women in Maryam’s life are fascinating specific but also easily can be imagined in other cultural contexts.

Ez Eldin’s work is deeply poetic even in translation, and moving in a way that both innovative but sincere in way innovative writing often seems not to be. It is my hope that her work is translated more widely into English and that she is read more in the English speaking world.

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