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The Magic of Saida [Deckle Edge] [Hardcover]

M.G. Vassanji
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Sept. 25 2012 Editors' Pick: Best Books of 2012

The Magic of Saida tells the haunting story of Kamal, a successful Canadian doctor who, in middle age and after decades in North America, decides to return to his homeland of East Africa to find his childhood sweetheart, Saida. Kamal's journey is motivated by a combination of guilt, hope, and the desire to unravel the mysteries of his childhood--mysteries compounded by the fact that Kamal is the son of an absent Indian father from a well-to-do family and a Swahili African mother of slave ancestry. Through a series of flashbacks, we watch Kamal's early years in the ancient coastal town of Kilwa, where he grows up in a world of poverty but also of poetry, sustained by his friendship with the magical Saida. 

This world abruptly ends when Kamal is sent away by his mother to live with his father's family in the city. There, the academically gifted boy grows up as a "dark Indian," eventually going to university and departing for Canada. Left behind to her traditional fate is Saida, now a beautiful young woman. Decades later, Kamal's guilt pulls him back to Kilwa . . . where we discovers what happened to Saida during a harrowing night of sinister rites. This complex, revelatory, sweeping and shocking book, is a towering testament to the magical literary powers of M.G. Vassanji.

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Product Description

Review - Best 100 Books of 2012

“The Magic of Saida is the sort of novel that, upon finishing, one wants to immediately read again, to examine, to study just how Vassanji works his narrative magic, and to allow oneself to savour it just that little bit longer. It’s simply baffling to me that such a book – that this book – appears on none of the major short lists this fall. It’s more than an oversight; it’s a crying shame.”
The Globe & Mail

“A gripping narrative . . . . [Vassanji’s] material is so compelling that he needs little more than to adopt the role of a chronicler . . . . A humble village, in the imagination of this chronicler, becomes a vortex of varying belief systems and ways of life.”
—National Post

“M.G. Vassanji’s new novel offers an experience as mysterious and haunting as hearing the sudden beat of drums in the middle of the night. . . . The seductive power of Vassanji’s prose mesmerizes. . . . One of Canada’s best novelists . . . . Vassanji’s new novel is darker and far more complex than any of his previous books.”
—Quill & Quire

About the Author

M.G. VASSANJI is the author of six novels, two collections of short stories, and two works of nonfiction. His first novel, The Gunny Sack, was winner of the Commonwealth Prize for Canada and the Caribbean. He has won the Giller Prize for both The Book of Secrets and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, and the Governor General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction for A Place Within: Rediscovering India. His novel The Assassin's Song was shortlisted for both the Giller Prize and the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction. He was born in Kenya and raised in Tanzania, and attended university in the United States. He lives in Toronto, Canada with his wife and two sons.

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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars love, love ,love Oct. 23 2012
I received this book as an ARC, sent to me by the publisher, and I finished it a few days ago and am still processing it. This will be a bit of an odd review (but really, most of mine have been recently). I think what's holding me back is I always want to write a review that lets people know what I felt about the book, and if I think they would enjoy it. I keep coming up empty, because all I can think is that this book was just lovely.

In the best possible way, I don't quite know what to make of this book. The book is a soft tale of 20th Century Colonialism, something that's rare in almost all other books related to that topic. It felt real - lives lived and impacted but it wasn't the focus of the book - it was there, it was history and it was life, but it wasn't what the book was about. I put a quick summary from the publisher below because it doesn't flow with my review, but to me the book was about regret, longing and memory. It struck a chord because a recurring feeling the protagonist had was that he didn't know where he belonged, and he never truly felt a part of something.

It's about finding your identity through finding the past. The book was brilliantly written, but Vassanji is a brilliant writer, one I have loved for a while. His brilliance lies in the subtleties of what he writes, the characters that he builds and where he takes the story - and above all I've always thought Vassanji is a storyteller. In all honesty I enjoyed this book more than I've enjoyed a book in a while. I broke my trashy Urban Fantasy kick to read this, and I'm incredibly glad I did. Absolutely go grab a copy, you won't regret it. It will leave you thinking and dreaming, and a feeling nostalgic for things you may have never known.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Like visiting a far away place June 29 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I really enjoyed reading The Magic of Saida, it made me feel like visiting the places I have not seen, it is amazing to learn of other cultures and customs. I always enjoy books that make me feel I am there because of very well written descriptions.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Book Club Jan. 23 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Excellent read. Purchased it for my Book Club. It has bee getting rave reviews. Will donate it to our local library.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.2 out of 5 stars  12 reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A man without a country March 6 2013
By TChris - Published on
Martin Kigoma, a publisher in Tanzania, meets Kamal Kunja in a hospital in Kilwa. As Kunja recovers from his sickness, he tells his story to Kigoma. Kunja's story interweaves with the story of Kilwa, its people and its myths. Kunja's trip from Canada to Kilwa ultimately becomes a journey of self-discovery. As he explores his past, Kunja contemplates his sense of rootlessness (not quite African, not quite Indian, certainly not Canadian), and begins to question whether he wants to be buried under several feet of snow on a continent to which he does not belong.

Kunja was born in Kilwa to an African mother and an absent Indian father. He was the childhood friend of a girl named Saida, the granddaughter of Mzee Omari, a renowned poet who doubled as a national historian. The second part of the novel recites the history of Kilwa as it was understood by Omari, beginning with Kunja's ancestor in India who, in the 1870s, answered the call of jihad against the Germans who claimed the right to lead the Africans out of darkness (at gunpoint, if necessary). Omari tells how his own life is shaped by betrayal and forgiveness as Kilwa moves from the harsh rule of Germans to the gentler oppression of the British.

After her grandfather's death, Saida becomes a mganga (spiritual healer or advisor). She gives Kunja a tawiz (locket) in which is sealed a prayer. Although Kunja eventually studies medicine in Uganda and becomes a physician in Canada, he never parts with the tawiz and never forgets his promise to return to Saida. As he continues his search for her -- a difficult task given the reluctance of villagers to discuss her -- Kunja recalls his life after his mother sent him from Kilwa to Dar es Salaam. The final chapters, in which Kunja finally learns about Saida's fate, have the flavor of a supernatural soap opera.

As much as it is Kunja's story, The Magic of Saida is the story of Kilwa. We learn enough about Kilwa's history and culture to understand the place, but not so much as to bog down the story. Celebrated in Milton's Paradise Lost and ruled by Persian sultans before becoming an important port in slave traffic, M. G. Vassanji describes the modern Kilwa, its culture and its people, in terms that are alternately loving and stark. It is a place possessed by djinns, haunted by the spirits of the dead who were hung from mango trees. Vassanji contrasts the old and the new Kilwa, questions whether the changes it has experienced are entirely for the better. What has become of tribal pride, Kigoma asks, now that Tanzania depends so much on foreign generosity? Even Kunja, who can well afford to be generous, doubts the value of charity as a response to "the outstretched hand of Africa." The tension between change and tradition and the struggle for African independence are the novel's strongest themes.

Unlike the chapters that take place in Kilwa, those that are set in other locations are less compelling. The frequent flashbacks to Kunja's life after leaving Kilwa interrupt the narrative flow while doing little to advance the reader's understanding of Kunja. His ill-treatment as a half-caste Indian is well illustrated in a couple of powerful scenes, but too many chapters seem determined to relate the history of Tanzania and Uganda. Kunja's time in Canada and a visit to India are covered in a whirlwind of words. The uneven pace and unnecessary scenes mar an otherwise enjoyable novel. The Magic of Saida is nonetheless worth reading for the picture it paints of Kilwa and for its intriguing story of a man struggling to connect his present to his past.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Saida June 13 2013
By Nergesh Tejani - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I lived many years in E. Africa so many names, places, events filled me with nostalgia. But removed from this personal angle the book was poorly written and trite. Not up to Vassanji's usual standard.
3.0 out of 5 stars Magic of Saida not a good read but great for a history buff. March 22 2014
By Veronica E Graver - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition
This book offers a great history lesson about Afghanistan but it drags and the story of Saida gets lost until the end of the book.
1.0 out of 5 stars Slow, boring, tedious, cerebral Jan. 21 2014
By book luvver - Published on
I found this book to be a really slow-going grind to read. If I wasn't reading it for a book group, I'd have given up long ago. The time/place shifts are very confusing. The writing is good from a technical point of view but the book lacks heart and passion. The writer did not make me really care about anyone in this story. The passages on the history of Tanzania were long and boring. This book just was not compelling in a way that I like a book to be. I think maybe he was trying to cover too many aspects in one novel. Too much history of many different eras, too many people's lives, and in the end he did not really do any of them full justice. The one person who I felt I could really feel something for was Kamal's mother but he does not fill out her character at all. She is the one whose life experience I would really like to know more about from the inside, from her emotional perspective, but he just glosses over this and she is a sort of backdrop and after thought. This book was not even nominated for any awards and I find that quite indicative of its quality.
3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly dull offering from Vassanji Dec 13 2012
By tita derousseau - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I have read a number of books by this author which I enjoyed, but this one is, frankly, a bore. The story line about Saida is not believable, although the African/Canadian doctor's journey is sometimes compelling. The uneven narration by the two different "voices" is irritating and pointless, and adds nothing to the story. a disappointment.
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