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Book of the Week: A Girl Called Eel by Ali Zamir

Updated: Sep 6, 2019

A pure diamond, a magnificent event. A mind-blowing debut novel.” – Le Point

Ali Zamir's debut novel is something of an experiment. Told in a single, winding sentence, it opens with Anguille's last thoughts, as she drowns in the Indian ocean, and reflects upon her life so far, her expectations regarding death, with all of the urgency of a teenager whose time has come. Many have commented on its flow, mimicking that of the ocean waves, and on its steam of consciousness form, with a limited use of punctuation, and a liberal love for capital letters. The language itself is notable for its colourful and local expressions and idioms. Anguille, though barely seventeen, was always an outsider who could not be content with the living conditions and norms of her island. Raised alongside her sister by her father after the death of his wife, she appeared to fulfil all of his expectations, until she gave way to passionate feelings towards a man who would be her downfall.

Although the novel is a real literary endeavour, it is undoubtedly political. Anguille's fate directly reflects the setting of a system of visas suppressing the free circulation of people between French Mayotte and the other islands of the archipelago, causing numerous drowning each year. But it also aims at unveiling truths about human nature, and the essence of desire, embodied by Vorace (Voracious), Anguille's unfaithful lover. The metaphor of the stage runs throughout the book, which is divided in 5 acts corresponding to the five stages of the tragedy unfolding in the boroughs of Mutsamudu, whose culture and inhabitants are depicted in a tender, albeit witty, way.

"It is rare to say about a book that you have never read anything like it, and this is one such case." - Elle

A Girl Called Eel is published by Jacaranda Books and it was translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins.

Ali Zamir was born on Anjouan in the Comoros. He studied French Literature at the University of Cairo where he obtained his Master's degree in 2010. He has since returned to Anjouan where he has been the Director of Culture and Cooperative Activities for the island since 2014. He initially wrote short stories, many of which about AIDS. First published in French as Anguille sous roche by Le Tripode in 2016, A Girl Called Eel is his first novel. It won him the Prix Senghor, a nomination for the Prix Wepler, the Prix Mandela de littérature, and the Prix des Rencontres à Lire de Dax 2017. He is also the recipient of the Prix ACP Femmes et Jeunes (Groupe des États d'Afrique, des Caraïbes et du Pacifique) for Mon Étincelle (2018) and of the Prix France Télévisions for Dérangé que je suis (2019)

Aneesa Abbas Higgins is based in London and has also lived in France and the USA. After completing her MA in French Language and Literature at the University of London, she taught French and was Head of Languages for many years at the American School in London. Since becoming a translator in 2014, she has translated several novels and a non-fiction book for children. She also writes book reviews for publication and reports on French books for UK publishers. Recent book translations include Seven Stones by Vénus Khoury-Ghata, which was short-listed for the Scott-Moncrieff Translation Prize, A Girl Called Eel ( the winner of a PEN Translates award) and What Became of the White Savage, the recipient of another PEN Translates award.

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