What strikes the reader of The Beautiful West and the Beloved of God almost immediately is how articulate author Michael Springate is. This comes across most powerfully in the way he enters the minds of his characters to get at their perceptions of the people and activity surrounding them. Moments of carefully crafted insight accumulate one by one until the reader is completely bound to the characters and the story.
The book starts on an intimate scale. It is 2008. Elena is the young single mother of seven-year old Sharon. The two have moved from Brandon, Manitoba, to Montreal, where Elena attends university and works part-time. There she meets Mahfouz, who works in his father Samih’s restaurant and is trying to figure out how best to use his business degree. Their mutual attraction surprises them both, but an affair begins and slowly deepens. Little by little we learn everyone’s past. Elena’s mother is dead; her father is a former Hutterite. Mahfouz’s family is Muslim and immigrated from Egypt. Rachel, Elena’s boss, is Jewish and is separated from her husband, Josh, an entertainment lawyer. Lengthy conversations between several characters expand on themes of personal identity and belief.
The first part of the book is an intimate view of interpersonal relationships, as Elena and Mahfouz begin to create the foundation of a future life together. But the tone of the book changes when Mahfouz travels to visit his uncle Ibrahim in Egypt. He has been sent by his father to explore a business opportunity, importing fragrances from Omar, a Somalian refugee living in Cairo—and perhaps also meet Omar’s daughter, Fadumah. Ibrahim, somewhat incongruously, is a secular supporter of the Islamic Brotherhood, which is being systematically pressed by Egyptian President Mubarak and his security forces. Ibrahim explains his politics to his nephew in what becomes the first of a series of sometimes overly detailed conversations between various characters, both in Egypt and Canada, on topics relating to the social and political struggles in Egypt and the Near East.
What started out as a story of the challenges of an intercultural relationship now becomes a broader, almost didactic exercise. The author’s intent is clearly to lay out the issues in Egypt’s political conflict thoroughly for the reader, but the result is that the intimacy with the characters gets interrupted. The emphasis changes to focus on the dilemma of individuals helplessly caught in a maelstrom of violence, accusation, and intimidation as authorities in Egypt and Canada try to unearth what they think is an international terrorist network. But Springate resists any temptation to sink into polemics, and this is a wonderful strength of this book. Mahfouz, Omar, and Ibrahim are trapped, but so are their tormentors.
Each individual is caught in the machinery of the implacable bureaucracy of counterterrorism, which exacts its brutal toll against all reason or compassion, and the author does a convincing job of conveying the rationale and mind-set of those in authority doing their job. Toward the end, he relies a bit too much on straightforward narration to move things along, though, presumably to avoid distracting the reader by devoting too much space to characters who aren’t his main focus. (The struggle of Omar’s family, for instance, in particular Fadumah, could be a compelling novel of its own).
The final part of the book changes tone once more, becoming more personal again, and adding a bit of Egyptian-themed mysticism. This is a risky choice, but it adds a surprising degree of poignancy to the ending, where the emotional power of this book hits its hardest. A thoughtful, balanced, and moving story.
The Beautiful West and the Beloved of God is published by Guernica Editions.