PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
… the narrative bristles with interesting characters and essential questions. Also, through Rayhana's gaze, we can see the strangeness of our own contemporary urban lives afresh.
an easy and enjoyable read.
The Desert and the Drum is a nicely turned novel of the clashes of tradition and modernity - not so much versus each other but the clashes within each. The constricted tribal ways are challenged by modernity but the faults that prove so damaging here are inherent to it: Rayhana is battered and broken by the demands of traditions, the 'other world' of modernity is something of a release valve, yet also doesn't offer true escape.
Beyond how it treats these themes, much of the appeal of The Desert and the Drum is in the presentation of local color, Beyrouk presenting contemporary Mauritania, on its smallest and most isolated scale as well as on the bustling modern-metropolitan one, very nicely through Rayhana and her experiences. So much she experiences is almost beyond words - such as the machinery the foreigners bring for their mining expedition and what they are doing to the land - but that goes just as much for her emotional experiences across her various stations, and her wide-eyed fumbling efforts to express all this that is new and unknown to her (and, often, her tribe) make for an impressive narrative.
'Translator McGill has found a register that is at once simple and precise, conveying images that spark both surprise and recognition. Take the description of Rayhana’s friend regarding her so intently that it seems as if she is trying ‘to mount the horses of [Rayhana’s] words and ride right inside [her]’ or this portrayal of her mother, who ‘had crossed the Sahara of doubt long ago, never to return’. Such phrases at once root the story in its setting and convey its sense to readers everywhere.
This balancing of the specific and the universal is perhaps the book’s greatest strength. Grounded in the traditions that drive it and yet brimming with observations that are true wherever you read them, the novel bears the hallmark of great literature, making one little corner of the world an everywhere in which all manner of people can meet.
The Desert and the Drum is an exciting and compelling addition to the anglophone library. While it is unreasonable to expect one book to bear the weight of representing an entire nation there is no doubt that this is a great ambassador for Mauritanian literature.'