Top critical review
Flawed, but engaging
on July 26, 2012
This one was a pleasant surprise. It's not great literature, but it proved to be an enjoyable story with some redeeming social value, and my expectations were not high (you just never know with obscure translations).
The Lovers of Algeria follows a star-crossed couple--Anna, a Swiss acrobat who initially travels to Algeria in the early 1940s, and Nassreddine, an Algerian man--through most of the 20th century. The timeline jumps back and forth, and while I was at first annoyed when I'd been reading about the 1990s, reached page 90 (where it jumps to the 1920s) and realized most of the rest of the book was backstory, it actually works out pretty well and turned out to be a more compelling story than I expected. The characters themselves are all right--adequate for their roles, and there's some complexity to their relationships (the central romance is imperfect), but they're not especially memorable.
Aside from telling a good story, this book is most memorable for its portrayal of the upheaval and violence in 20th century Algeria--a country struggling with first colonialism, then terrorism, not to mention poverty and a lack of resources to deal with its problems. It's from the perspective of average people, so it doesn't provide a high-level explanation of policy; instead we get an on-the-ground view of what life is like for civilians just struggling to get by amidst the instability and violence. And Benmalek manages to do this without being simplistic or too sentimental; the world of the book feels three-dimensional. It's an ugly place, so readers just looking for romance may want to skip this one, but it gives real beyond-the-headlines insight into what people caught between terrorists and an ineffective government have to deal with.
While I found it a worthwhile read, though, and sped through most of it in a single day, there were a lot of little annoyances that together bring it down to 3 stars. The timeline doesn't add up (Anna apparently ran off with the circus four years before she was born). The use of the present tense is inconsistent, and even more jarring in a book that jumps back and forth in time. There are a lot of exclamation points in the narration, and sometimes it's unclear who is speaking. Benmalek obsessively describes women's sexual characteristics, even when writing from their own perspectives. The ending almost seems to be missing a paragraph or two--it just ends, without telling us what the characters plan to do next.
And, perhaps most unfortunate of all, two or three major character decisions struck me as terribly implausible. For instance, Anna and Nassreddine's relationship begins with a contrived romance-novel-style scenario, in which even though he's a virtual stranger and she has no intention of having a sexual relationship, she decides to leave the circus and move into his one-room hut (just the two of them) so she can be available for a friend. Um, right.
That said, if you can put up with a few eyebrow-raising scenarios, it is an engaging story, and the translation is fluidly written. Recommended for those interested in learning more about Algeria, or those who love decades-long odds-defying love stories.