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This novel is the most famous book in Azerbaijan, with coffee shops and book stores named after it. The author Kurban Said is unknown – a pen name to conceal an identity of possibly a woman or a Jew (all have been rumoured). I decided to read it after a visit to Baku in Azerbaijan last year and nominated it to my Book Club in east London. Most loved it more than me.
Ali is a local Muslim lad and Nino is a Christian girl from neighbouring Georgia and they both go to nearby schools in Baku in in about 1918. They fall in love but there are the inevitable conflict of their diverse religions (Ali promises Nino she won’t have to wear a veil or be part of a harem), their cultural backgrounds (Nino is more Western and modern, whilst Ali’s family is more traditional), and the battle for their homeland potentially being torn apart by either the Russians or the Ottomans (Arabs). The path of true love does certainly not run smoothly for these two. Due to the nature of the times and the region, women are not valued.
Whilst I enjoyed the themes of identity and conflict running throughout the novel, I struggled to see the appeal of the two main characters to each other. I think the book lacked a certain level of character development for me to engage with them as a couple, rather than as two individuals. The book is quite descriptive but I think my previous visit to Baku helped me imagine how their old town would have been.
All in all I was a tiny bit disappointed with this book, but if you like a historical romance, you will certainly find a unique one here.