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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Leïla Sebbar

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To purchase Sherazade

Title: Sherazade
Author: Leïla Sebbar
Genre: Novel
Written: 1982 (Eng. 1991)
Length: 290 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Sherazade - US
Sherazade - UK
Sherazade - Canada
Shérazade - Canada
Sherazade - India
Shérazade - France
  • French title: Shérazade, 17 ans, brune, frisée, les yeux verts
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Dorothy S. Blair
  • Sebbar wrote two further Sherazade-volumes (1985 and 1990); neither has been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good picture of young adults in early 1980s Paris

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 31/12/1999 Claudia Pugh-Thomas

  From the Reviews:
  • "Images of the Mahgreb rise vividly from Sebbar's writing, her unhurried, fluid narrative pausing to allow digressions on family history and memories with the introduction of every new character." - Claudia Pugh-Thomas, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The title-character in Sherazade is a seventeen-year-old girl; whether that's even actually her name remains unclear, and she often uses other ones. A studious girl and voracious reader -- especially of books from Algeria, where her family is from -- who likes to spend her time in the library she simply disappears from home in her final school year, taking up residence in a squat in Paris. Identity is clearly a central issue here: she's trying to figure out hers -- hence also the coyness about her name/'real' identity, since she clearly feels she doesn't have that yet. Her plan is to set out for Algeria -- a return home, of sorts -- presumably hoping to find and deal with some of her roots. Meanwhile, she waits in Paris for her forged papers to be finished -- papers that will identify her as eighteen (of legal age, which she's not), and a false nationality -- French. The fake name she has selected: Rosa Mire -- though it's not a name she uses in presenting herself yet.
       Julien Desrosiers, a young man interested in film and Arabic, is taken by Sherazade -- but realizes that he can't force her into anything and accepts that any relationship they might have must be on her terms. He's accepting of her elusive ways, and she finds him and his apartment a safe port, even as she generally keeps her distance.
       The squat that is Sherazade's primary residence is shared by a changing number of young men and women -- slightly older than her, but also still at an unsettled stage in life. They're fairly well-educated, from a variety of backgrounds; for a variety of reasons, including political ones, they prefer to situate themselves more on the fringes of society. Nevertheless, some take on conventional jobs -- Sherazade works in a boutique -- and only one has a hard drug habit. There's some petty crime -- Sherazade shoplifts -- and one big hold-up, an auto-reduction, they insist, redistributing wealth from those with too much to those who actually deserve it (so the self-serving excuse, anyway). The police are a constant worry, but mainly because Sherazade is a runaway and doesn't have a proper identification card if she gets stopped -- a reasonable concern in Paris at the time.
       Sherazade does move with purpose -- a clear ambition, reaching Algeria, ahead of her -- but almost the entire time in the story she is adrift, unable and unwilling to anchor herself anywhere. Typically, when Julien takes her to a concert, she sees some old friends and then slips away with them. Eventually, she even loses her room in the squat when she's away for a while. Her continuing routine of going to the library, or her holding onto the jewelry she took from her mother when she left home, suggest some sense of stability, but everything she does is oriented towards her being able to go to Algeria
       The novel is the first of three featuring Sherazade, but the following two have not yet been translated into English; at the end of this one she has set out for her goal, disappearing yet again, in more emphatic fashion. The uncertainty as to her fate is hardly fatal to this book in which her fate has seemed up in the air -- floating unpredictably like a feather -- the entire time.
       The novel's approach makes for a good -- and appropriately inconclusive -- perspective on young adult life: Sherazade's quest might be the central one, but the other characters too are similarly drifting along for the moment, with a variety of objectives (be they even just enjoying life for the moment), and few manage to settle in any way by the end of this volume. Only the most determined -- Pierrot, who has a crush on Sherazade -- takes matters into his own hands in the story's explosive finish; elusive Sherazade remains (physically) untouched by even this final, dramatic act
       Presented in short chapters, each generally focused on one or two of the larger cast of characters, and with only a limited sense of progress (reinforced by the gaps in knowledge Sebbar leaves), Sebbar's portrait of these individuals (specifically Sherazade), that generation, and the Paris of these times (early 1980s) is a welcome one of France, a bridge between the more common emigrant/banlieue stories, those of more privileged and white Paris, and those of the more politicized 1968-generation. Even as times and concerns have changed, the novel provides a welcome reminder of how France's Algerian legacy has continued to fester all these years. Despite having been written (and set) in the early 1980s, the characters -- aside from their Walkmans and the like -- feel remarkably contemporary in behavior and attitude.
       Filling in details -- especially about Sherazade, and her relationship with the family that is looking for her (and which she has cautiously but not completely cut herself off from) -- piecemeal and not always chronologically, Sebbar also repeatedly resorts to lists and basic factual information, whether of radio station frequencies or the names and dates of paintings in a museum. Yet Sebbar is careful in just how documentary she makes her novel: these facts and figures are largely meant as basic information that can perhaps provide some of the hold Sherazade seeks (but does not yet find). Recurring images and observations, such as about Sherazade's name, or her unusual green eyes, meanwhile, allow the story to drift into the more universal-mythical. The novel has an unmoored feel to it, never answering all the reader's questions about the characters and their motivations, yet that is ultimately also one reason it works so well as a whole.
       Sherazade is a book that has held up well, and continues to seem relevant to understanding contemporary France.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 February 2015

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Sherazade: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Leïla Sebbar was born in Algeria in 1941.

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