To tell a story about origins, especially if these are messy, concealed or both, is to be tempted to reach for some sort of root. The metaphor, grown thin from overuse, ought to be handled with care, the slant approach favoured. In Age of Iron, J M Coetzee’s fable of life under apartheid, a classics professor seeks clues to the political malaise around her in the true and false roots of words. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth makes skilled use of root canals and straightening irons to tell its characters’ tangled histories, swapping the familiar tree for the less anthologised kingdom of hair, tooth and nail. If you must call on sap and soil to make your meaning clear, you’d be wise not to labour the point. In his debut, a study of displacement and divided identity that won the sixth International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2013 and has now been translated into English, the young Kuwaiti writer Saud Alsanousi has alighted on the bamboo as an emblem of his hero’s plight. The plant’s metaphorical mission could hardly be clearer if the book came encased in a lattice of green shoots and printed on sheets of unbleached pulp.
A piece of bamboo, replanted in new ground, will sprout fresh roots and grow, and so it is with our hero. Born of a secret union between a Kuwaiti intellectual and his family’s Filipina maid, José comes of age torn between two worlds, scorned by both as a creature