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by Amina Zaydan
Translated from the Arabic by Sally Gomaa
Reviewed by Amanda Meale

Filled with Egyptian history and vivid wartime descriptions, Red Wine, the winner of the 2007 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, is a beautifully written novel by an obviously gifted author. The book both mesmerises and frustrates.

As the novel opens, forty-year-old Suzy Muhammad Galal is starting a new life. Not certain as to exactly what that life will be, Suzy is nonetheless determined to leave behind a past full of abuse. Red Wine is a reflection upon Suzy's life from the age of ten years in the city of Suez, Egypt. Her childhood is dominated by an eccentric and uncaring mother, a woman dissatisfied with her marriage and circumstances. Suzy's father is kind but ineffectual and shares with Suzy the brunt of his wife's rages. Suzy's thirteenth year coincides with the Six-Day War in which Egypt, Jordan and Syria are allied against Israel. The young girl lives through the fighting and sees first-hand the carnage and devastation of war.

[Outsiders] will never know what happened there in the labyrinth of the desert, people who will never have to count the mass murders of their army units, who are lucky to never have to learn the colors of the mire of death and devastation—the gray that invokes sorrow, absolute relief in black, the red that runs lost lives into annihilation. Death, I love you with your cancerous spread through the ghost town. I keep looking for you under debris and between fires and where you lurk disguised in tortured faces.

Around the same time, and for many years to come, Suzy is answerable to her mother's brother, Atef, who administers regular beatings as punishment for the slightest offence. This physical abuse continues as Suzy finishes high school and begins university studies. Somehow she manages to enjoy the study of literature and she also involves herself in university politics. Through a student communist group Suzy meets Essam who will become her husband and colleague. Together they engage in a drug-addled existence, and the marriage is ultimately doomed. Within the thirty years covered by the novel, Suzy has one shining relationship. Although she is separated from her first love, Andrea, in Suzy's mind he is always with her. The book's title, Red Wine, refers to one of Andrea's favourite songs.

Red Wine introduced me to some of Egypt's interesting history. It made me seek out more detailed information about the Arab-Israeli conflict in the 1960s and 1970s. (I love it when a book educates me!) I was both fascinated and horrified by Zaydan's descriptions of the wartime destruction. Zaydan's prose is enthralling—the type of writing that cocoons one in its beauty. As the novel progresses, however, Suzy begins to emerge as a whingeing sack of misery. Red Wine becomes overwrought with Suzy's suffering and sometimes verges on melodrama. Suzy's character has no depth—she is nothing more than a victim. Perhaps, though, this is a deliberate ploy by the author—Suzy has been devoid of spirit but she is now seeking more.

Despite its flaws, Red Wine introduced me to a very talented writer. The overall experience offers rewards. I look forward to Zaydan's next book and hope to see how she has grown as a writer.

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