In Morocco during the French protectorate, mixed-race marriages were viewed with revulsion by polite colonial society. It’s little wonder, then, that the mixed-race family at the heart of The Country of Others are such a dyspeptic bunch. When the book opens, in the 1940s, Amine Belhaj is an aspiring fruit grower and self-taught botanist tasked with cultivating a barren plot of land outside Meknes. Although Amine fought for the French with distinction during the war, the colonists treat him as an inferior once he is in civilian dress. He vomits or nearly vomits when drunk, while travelling, at a cattle market and when leaving a brothel. His sister, Selma, wants to vomit when she thinks of the docility of their mother, who has spent her life walled in. Amine’s big blonde wife, Mathilde, from a bourgeois family living in Alsace, is sickened by the odour of cheap candle wax, a servant girl’s oily tagines, Amine’s foreignness and the presence of his family members. Their baseness and triviality hurt her ‘more than homesickness or loneliness’.
The novel, Leïla Slimani’s third, is set during the Moroccan struggle for independence and is the first part of a projected trilogy. It marks a shift of register from the brisk, rather affectless narratives of her previous works. Both Dans le jardin de l’ogre (published as Adèle in English), about a nymphomaniac journalist, and Chanson douce (Lullaby), for which she won the 2016 Prix Goncourt, draw you in, paradoxically, by keeping you at a distance.
The tone of the new book is intimate and retrospective, while the pacing, which is initially unhurried as it conveys the tedium and repetitive nature of rural life, accelerates once the nationalist movement gathers force. As the title suggests, the main characters are hybrids beset by a sense