4 out of 4 stars
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Motorbikes and Camels by Nejoud Al-Yagout is a novel about love and relationships set in Kuwait. The book is a network of thirteen interconnected short stories, each chapter told from the viewpoint of a different character in the novel. Salma is a teenage girl who has little experience with boys. She loses her virginity in college to Bader, a handsome and confident young man, but their relationship falls apart due to his lack of interest in marriage. Salma marries another man, Khaled, but they are not truly happy together, and Khaled develops a drinking problem right after their wedding. Later, she finds messages on his phone from another woman and they get divorced. Meanwhile, Khaled pines for his first and only true love, Saadia, whom he broke up with only due to pressure from his father, who didn't want him marrying below his own social status. From here, the story moves on to Saadia, Bader, and so on.
This was a beautifully written book with excellent editing. The writing was crisp, clean and easy to read, which helped me follow a complicated story through a large set of characters and their interactions. Though it was a challenge to keep up with all the characters, I found it worthwhile to get multiple perspectives on each situation. Things were often not as they seemed after I read about one side of a relationship, with a very different perspective then appearing from the other partner. The dialogue between characters seemed heartfelt and realistic. I also enjoyed the ending, which tied several chapters together and involved multiple viewpoint characters.
Motorbikes and Camels contained powerful truths about men and women, such as: "Her mother had once told her it was easy to catch a man's attention but difficult to keep it. He could easily be distracted by others..." I feel this is true of any man to at least some degree. Men are innately wired to seek an attractive potential mate, sometimes even if already in a relationship - particularly if not happy with their current partner. This is not necessarily a flattering sentiment, but I think it is accurate. Similarly, women often seem attracted to men who are not good for them and perhaps not even decent human beings - the allure of the "bad boy". This book illustrated nicely how these inbuilt traits make finding love difficult for both sexes. It also neatly portrayed how emotion can overwhelm reason when it comes to the opposite sex.
Kuwait differed greatly from the western world, with rich "kids" usually living with their parents until they got married. They also received monetary allowances so they did not have to work. This privileged life was well out of reach of those in lower socio-economic strata. It was also a male-dominated society where women barely even qualified as citizens. Mohammed, Salma's uncle, who had two wives, decided to leave one for the night to have sex with the other. He told his first wife about it specifically to make her jealous: "He turned around to make sure she was pouting. She was. He could leave now. Mohammed was excited by the idea of her sleeping lonely, dreaming about him. He couldn’t wait to return home so Zayna could lavish him with attention and praise." Finding this selfish and disgusting, I was greatly satisfied when something unfortunate soon happened to Mohammed.
This book highlighted the difficulties in human relationships, especially the different ways men and women process romantic situations. The many miscommunications were excellent, along with the lying and game-playing which led to broken relationships. Saadia, Khaled's one true love, lost her faith in men when Khaled ended their relationship due to pressure from his father over her family's lack of social status. Yet she still kissed his newspaper wedding photograph (from his wedding to another woman) goodnight each night before bed. She couldn't understand how she loved a man she hated.
With thirteen chapters from thirteen different viewpoints, it was challenging to keep track of all the links between characters in my head. I should have drawn myself a "family tree"-type diagram to depict all the relationships and ex-relationships! However, the stories all wove together nicely; it just took time to embed all the connections in my mind. This was therefore only a minor issue. Given its high quality and readability, I rate Motorbikes and Camels 4 out of 4 stars. An engaging book filled with hook-ups, break-ups, love, lust, and human failings, it would appeal to readers of romance, drama, and those with an interest in Middle Eastern culture. If you have recently ended a relationship, however, now might not be the best time to read this book!
Moderator's Note: The three errors noted by the reviewer have since been corrected.
Motorbikes and Camels
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