A Saudi, a definite one, with the "al-" in front of his last name, saw and felt the anguish around him, of those more indefinite, who never had the "al", or had simply lost it, and had the empathy to write an absolutely brilliant novel about their lives, and their chance encounters. There are three principal characters: Turad, a Saudi man of the desert, a Bedouin, who was forced to leave his tribe; Hasan, a Sudanese boy captured by slavers, who would be transformed into Tawfiq, which means "good fortune," and his life would be anything but; and Nasir, another Saudi, the abandoned "fruit" of an affair, raised in an orphanage... Each of them lost a body part, in tragic circumstances. That loss has marked them, setting them apart, and was often a source of ridicule and humiliation.
None of the above characters had their physical deformity at birth. I did however compare their fate with two characters who did, both having a "club-foot," Phillip, in W. Somerset Maugham's "Of Human Bondage," and Manal, in Jocelyne J. Awad's "Khamsin." Their deformity is central to their existence; their longing to be "normal," is a persistent theme in their life. In the case of the characters from Maugham and Awad, it was a matter of nature "dealing a bad hand." For Al-Mohaimeed's characters the tragedy of their deformity is compounded, since each is due to the cruelty, greed, and callousness of humans, and need never have happened.
I love the author's prose-- his technique and style. Certainly the metaphor of the pixels being added upon each scan of the object, bringing the entire picture into focus is appropriate. At one point I wanted to shout "No" -- that is not sufficient motivation for what happened to Nasir, but then in the next chapter, on the next "scan," the motivation was amply provided. In addition, comparisons with the "magic realism" of Marquez have been made, appropriate I believe, and I would add Isabelle Allende to the list. I found the dramatic tension high throughout the novel, and it served to pull the reader inexorably from chapter to chapter. Comparisons with Paul Auster are also fitting. I loved Al-Mohaimeed's emphasis on the importance of smells, and making yet another comparison, remembered the prose of Thomas Wolfe, in "Look Homeward, Angel." I'm not surprised that another of Al- Mohaimeed's novels is entitled: "The Lure of Scent." In no way though, by making these comparisons, would I like to suggest that Al-Mohaimeed's style is derivative --- his voice is authentic, and at least for Western readers, resonates easier than, say Al Munif, who can be too ponderous and verbose. In part, this could be due to the excellent translation provided by Calderbank, but certainly not entirely.
I found one mistake in the novel, which could not be excused even by the "magic realism" technique: Tawfiq's age when he was emancipated did not jive the actual proclamation in 1962. (p 154)
Overall though, Al-Mohaimeed has written an excellent novel; to make yet one more comparison; he has portrayed the underclass in Saudi Arabia much like John Steinbeck did with America's underclass, in "The Grapes of Wrath." It is beyond the edge of sadness that his great novel is yet another book that is banned in the Kingdom; the country desperately needs great, authentic writers--they should be encouraged. Positive social development occurs when a country's authentic writers are nurtured.
As a final point, Al-Mohameed's portraits have a specific attribution to certain aspects of life in Saudi Arabia; more essentially though, he portrays the universal human condition. His book is a reminder that similar characters exist, right here in what with some conceit, we like to call "The Land of Enchantment." With the deteriorating economic conditions, there is an increase in the "Tom Jodd's" rolling along the old Route 66, hoping to find salvation in California, hoping to remove themselves from the "Hell" of their current situation. I think Al-Mohameed would understand it all well.