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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Book Censor's Library

Bothayna Al-Essa

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Title: The Book Censor's Library
Author: Bothayna Al-Essa
Genre: Novel
Written: 2019 (Eng. 2024)
Length: 261 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Book Censor's Library - US
The Book Censor's Library - UK
The Book Censor's Library - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Arabic title: حارس سطح العالم
  • Translated by Ranya Abdelrahman and Sawad Hussain

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Our Assessment:

B : well done, and a fine example of the genre

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Book Censor's Library is set in a dystopian future, a time: "after the fall of democracies, the rationing of technology, the revolution against the information revolution". It takes place in a totalitarian country where the authorities do everything in their considerable power to suppress the human imagination -- not least in their large-scale censorship and prohibition (and destruction) of books. It is a world where: "the mother of all banned books" is George Orwell's 1984 -- the book the regime considers more dangerous than any other because, as someone working in the Censorship Authority explains: "it tells our story".
       The main character had hoped to become a bookstore inspector -- they "lived the good life: elegant blue uniforms, military-grade benefits, and a one percent increase in their electricity quota" -- but he wound landing a job as a censor. It's a job that requires actual reading -- and it's the reading that sinks him: after cutting his teeth on "pedestrian texts" they let him tackle Zorba the Greek. Sure, he finds: "more than enough violations to ban the book: phrases that offended, transgressed, blasphemed". And yet .....
       The censor's predecessor had fallen: "victim to the reading malady" and been relieved of his duties -- but he had a protector in the Head of the Department and had been installed as Secretary (after signing: "a pledge at the Administrative Court, promising never to go back to reading"). While the censor is at first repulsed by the Secretary, the wise old man recognizes that this new censor has the seeds of a reader in him and wins him over -- including to his efforts to save the books, which he has been doing stealthily under the nose of his boss for years.
       The censor has another problem, a young daughter who has a way too vivid and active imagination -- something so dangerous that the he and his wife worry about her being sent to a rehabilitation center by the authorities -- a terrible fate. Try as he might to hide his daughter's fantasy-life, he sees he can't suppress it -- and in the Secretary finds someone who actually helps foster it (and makes the little girl happy).
       Al-Essa presents this dark future and the system that is in place well. Surreal elements -- like the rabbits that plague the Censorship Authority building (and, yes, Alice in Wonderland makes an appearance as well) -- keep it from being too dark, while the details such as excerpts from the 'The Book Censor's Manual for Correct Reading' and the like nicely skewer the absurdity of the whole undertaking.
       The power of books, and how the censor can't resist them, and the power of the totalitarian authorities are both nicely presented. The conditions described here are of an extreme of authoritarianism -- but, for all the echoes of Nazi book burning and Soviet censorship, much here is also plausibly close to all too familiar situations in the present-day world with its limits on what can and can't be printed and said, especially in (the all too many) nations increasingly tending to totalitarianism.
       Difficult as it may be to suppress imagination, and freedom of thought, Al-Essa's story isn't entirely hopeful either -- though there's a fairly clever turn to her otherwise rather darkly-shaded conclusion.
       It's all very nicely done, but The Book Censor's Library is also largely a variation on a very familiar (warning-)story. Al-Essa uses that as well -- the novel pays homage to many of its predecessors, from 1984 to Fahrenheit 451 -- but a great deal here feels all too familiar.
       The Book Censor's Library is well-written and a good novel, and a fine example of the genre -- but readers less familiar with other examples will likely find it much more satisfying than those who have read many of the many earlier similar works in the genre.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 March 2024

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The Book Censor's Library: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Kuwaiti author Bothayna Al-Essa (بثينة العيسى) was born in 1982.

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© 2024 the complete review

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