The Yacoubian Building

I bought this book a while back for reasons I can’t remember now, but it’s the most recent choice for the Slaves of Golconda book group and so high time I read it. The novel tells the stories of multiple characters, none of whom could really be called the protagonist, since the narrative spends similar amounts of time with each story. It’s the Yacoubian building that holds all the stories and the novel itself together. The Yacoubian building contains apartments that house people of many different backgrounds and classes, so through their stories we get a glimpse into various parts of Egyptian culture and experience.

There’s more than the building that holds the novel together; there is also a simmering frustration with Egyptian society and government that plays a part in many if not all of the stories. Taha, for example, finds himself unable to fulfill his dream of entering the Police Academy because of favoritism and corruption and soon joins a militant Islamic group. Busayna discovers that the only way she can support herself and her family is by allowing male employers to take sexual advantage of her. Zaki falls victim to his conniving sister who evicts him from his own apartment by getting the police on her side. Money, family, and connections are everything, and without them, there is little one can do to change one’s fate. It helps very much not to be a woman as well.

I admired the range of stories (not that there are all that many main narrative threads, maybe a handful) and subject matter they explore, from political corruption to workplace exploitation, religious devotion, family dynamics, sexuality, con men, drug dealing, torture, and falling in love. It’s a lot to cover in 250 pages, and Al Aswany does it admirably, giving us a feel for life in Cairo. I was grateful for the list of characters and their descriptions included right before the novel’s opening because the frequent switching from story to story got distracting at times, and the guidance was helpful.

I was never fully immersed in the novel, another function, I’m sure, of the jumps from character to character. But there were rewards to compensate for this, especially the overview of Egyptian society the multiple stories offered and the economy with which Al Aswany captures a rich sense of his characters’ lives. The narrator seems to withhold judgment, portraying the characters’ virtues and failings with equanimity. He seems interested more in understanding why people are the way they are rather than in judging them for what they do. It’s possible to find this narrative style flat and affectless, but I felt an undercurrent of compassion that at times is powerful.


Filed under Books, Fiction

3 responses to “The Yacoubian Building

  1. Another Slaves selection I’ve missed. I’ve read Stefanie’s review and pretty much decided that this one probably wasn’t for me. I think you have reinforced that now even though you seem to have liked it a bit better than she. The premise sounds very interesting, though. We represent an old and elegant condominium building that is currently involved a lawsuit. I’ve had to meet various residents, some of whom have lived there for decades, and almost all of whom are quirkly (some would say crack pots, but I won’t…though I am sorely tempted at times) and so colorful that I thought the building would have some great stories to tell. The premise of this book reminds me of that.


  2. ” I was grateful for the list of characters and their descriptions included right before the novel’s opening because the frequent switching from story to story got distracting at times, and the guidance was helpful.”

    I just finished reading a book that definitely could have benefited from a list like this. It’s hard to write a book that shifts between so many characters well, and while a list like this could come off as cheap, if properly presented it can also be ridiculously helpful. Good to know it worked well in this case!


  3. I think we felt very similarly about this novel, on the whole. I did admire and enjoy it. I felt that the deadpan style was a way to avoid melodrama. A sort of casual, half-jesting representation of quite shocking corruption that was more upsetting almost than if the narrative had treated it with hushed seriousness. But I think I might be alone in appreciating that part! But I felt that it packed a lot in, and in a way that was clear and mostly powerful.


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