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.
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.