By: Leila Slimani
Publication Date: May 30, 2023
Review Date: June 23, 2023
Award-winning author Leila Slimani delivers a bittersweet novel based on her familial roots in Morocco. It is the second book in a trilogy series of novels based on the author's family's roots in revolutionary Morocco.
The story begins with Mathilde Belhaj reflecting upon her life’s journey thus far. She married Amine Belhaj in 1945 and is conflicted with the opulence she sees before her with a certain "...vengeance against the austerity that her husband imposed upon her in every aspect of her life..." (page 3) Her latest desire is to have a swimming pool added to their stately grounds; something their children (Selim and Aicha) would certainly enjoy. She thinks about her children. Aicha was born in 1947 and she was the pride and joy of her parents. She was accomplished in every manner of her existence and finished at the top of her class while attending the convent school. She would continue to excel in her studies and eventually become a doctor. Selim was born in 1951. Suffice it to say, not only was he the polar opposite of his brilliant sister, but terribly spoiled by his mother and, for that matter, who knew what accomplishments he would attain in his lifetime.
Mathilde’s husband Amine had grand designs for his stature in life. He was born in 1917 and was the eldest son of Kadour Belhaj, an interpreter in the colonial army. Upon Amine’s father’s death in 1939, Amine inherited Kadour’s lands but not before the Second World War broke out in Morocco. Amine felt it his duty to enroll in a Spahi Regiment and alongside his aide-de-camp Mourad, he was sent to a POW camp in Germany. It was when he managed to escape that he met Mathilde Belhaj and they were soon married thereafter at a church in Alsace, France in 1945. Even though one would think there would be happily ever after for the Belhaj family, unrest and turmoil was prevalent in Morocco. To overcome the situation, Amine devoted his life and efforts into developing the family farm into a prosperous and modern business.
I have not had the pleasure of reading the first book in this trilogy (In the Country of Others) but having just read Watch Us Dance, this is a must. The prose and beautiful crafting of this story is incredibly captivating and historically rich. Slimani is quite adept in establishing and anchoring a distinct voice and tone on the very first page! What I found to be extremely helpful before even getting into the depths of this read, was the useful guide in the very beginning titled ‘Dramatis Personae.’ Slimani provides a description and biography of each character for the readers’ use and information. It’s a tremendous guide to facilitate discerning who is who as the story unfolds. Even with the myriad of complexities in this body of work, Slimani does a phenomenal job of guiding her audience and never misses the moment to tie each component of the story into the next scene about to unfold and the relevance in doing so. There are a multitude of scenes that are powerfully written. However, there is one scene in particular where Slimani addresses something quite incestuous that occurs between character Selim and his Aunt Selma. After their encounter, Slimani writes a raw depiction of character Selim’s thoughts after an erotic encounter with his Aunt Selim: "...Later he would revisit the memories of that afternoon until they became worn and faded, until they disappeared, until he no longer knew what was true and what wasn’t. Did he pull her toward him, or was it perhaps she who stood up and pressed her cheek against his? She moved her lips closer and when he felt her tongue, cool and damp, inside his mouth, he thought he might faint or eat her alive. He wasn’t afraid. He abandoned himself to her as he abandoned himself to water and felt the same rightness and lightness as he did when swimming..." (Page 81) The nuance of forbiddance is as alive as the forbidden desire in this passage, but the sublime message has a tone of how wrong the situation was. Perhaps this is a bit too much to bear, but it’s tantamount to the depth of connection Slimani has with her creative process. I applaud her for this body of work and look forward to the next book in this series. There is a beautiful balance between human nature and historical account throughout this read. Well done!
Quill says: Watch Us Dance is a gripping novel of family dynamics set in a richly historical period of time.