by Edith Cody-Rice
Night of Power takes its name from the evening during Ramadan when the effect of prayers to Allah are increased a thousand fold. But on the Night of Power in the novel, a tragic event occurs that the reader knows will change the future of the family who are the subject of this first novel by Canadian author Anar Ali. And the Night of Power occurs toward the end of the book. The story builds to it.
The centre of the novel is an Ismaili Muslim family, The Visrams, who are living and surviving, but perhaps not thriving, in Calgary. They had been chased out of Uganda by Idi Amin 25 years ago, leaving a luxurious elite life which emanated from the empire constructed by the husband’s father. Now the husband, Mansoor, is trying to rebuild a family empire, but his son and only child Ashif, wants nothing to do with it. Mansoor has worked hard and struggled in Canada as a used car salesman, gas station owner and is currently the owner of a small dry cleaning establishment but he has visions of reclaiming a life he had in the past.
This is a novel every Canadian should read. In fact, it is on CBC Book’s Thirty Books to Read Now. While those of us who have been privileged to come from families who have spent many generations here might sympathize with the immigrant experience, until we are drawn in, as we are by this story, to their lives and hearts, we cannot appreciate this trying experience. It is Canadian in every way, set in wintry Calgary.
In this, Anar Ali’s debut novel, she shows a remarkable ability to enter into the thoughts, emotions, and thought processes of her protagonists. There is Mansoor, who, we see by his actions, is in many ways far from admirable, but we cannot dislike him. He is stubborn and makes poor decisions, but he is desperately working to regain lost status. He works very hard to get there and has high standards. His values, both good and bad, have been transferred directly from his homeland and family.
Then the wife, Layla, who is dismissed by her husband, but who is the heart of the family and to some degree of the community. She supplements the family income with her excellent cooking business and dotes on her son Ashif, to whom she is close.
And finally Ashif, the son, who has made an external success of his life, working toward the executive ladder of a multinational corporation, but who hates his job and yearns for a life focused on beauty.
We see, feel and understand the thoughts, desires and emotions of each of the characters through superb character development. The personalities are complex, as is the life they are living, but there is also a universal quality to their experience. The story, which takes place over just a few days, moves toward its denouement at a steady and engrossing pace. From one point of view, they are ordinary people, but like all people seen up close, there is nothing ordinary about them.
In the course of the story, we are drawn into the life of the Calgary Ismaili community. To her credit, the author does not attempt to explain the terms for things, foods and events that occur in the Ismaili tradition, just as those of us who are Anglos don’t attempt to explain Christmas, Easter, holy communion, pizzas or BBQ’d chicken. If you are not Muslim, you may be sent scurrying to Google to research words and traditions. But even if you don’t understand every word or tradition, you will understand the situation.
I would say a must read.
Anar Ali is a novelist and screenwriter who lives in Toronto. Her short story collection, Baby Khaki’s Wings, was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, the Trillium Book Award and the Danuta Gleed Literary Prize.
Night of Power is published by Penguin Canada