In Bird Summons, by Leila Aboulela, three Muslim women in three fragile marriages take a vacation to a remote loch in Scotland, with the intention of visiting a Scottish convert’s grave site. Each of the women wants to change her life, but they are all afraid of the costs of releasing themselves from the responsibilities and burdens to which they are tied. Moni devotes her life to her disabled son, at the expense of her marriage and her own work. Salma idly considers cheating on David, her husband of more than twenty years, with an old flame. And Iman, the youngest, finds herself freshly divorced for the third time and craves independence from men.
The novel follows these three women as they road trip to the Scottish Highlands. They support each other, but a fracture appears in their friendship when one of them decides to shed her hijab. They all begin to question their identities as they spend a week in a cottage waiting to visit the grave. Iman wonders, “to what extent is marriage religiously sanctioned prostitution?” while Salma ponders the fact that she will never be “British enough,” despite her Scottish husband and four British children.
These are the moments when the novel really comes to life, when Aboulela prods at the interior lives of these women as they balance the tension between their traditions and their lives in Britain. Iman is in Britain because she was not “useful and necessary to [her] people”; she sees her value as tied only to her beauty and her ability to attract men.
The realism of the novel is repeatedly interrupted by visits from a “Hoopoe,” a mystical bird which appears first in Iman’s dreams and relays fables to her. Toward the end of the novel the story takes a protracted digression into the fantastical, predicated by these visits—it doesn’t quite work after the ‘groundedness’ of what came before, and I found myself wishing that we could return to the internal lives of these three women which had been set up so richly. This novel is at its best in its moments of careful consideration of the anxieties of its main characters.