I have NetGalley to thank for introducing me to The Fugitives by Jamal Mahjoub. While perusing the upcoming books, I discovered this novel about musicians from Sudan. It was love at first sight for me, so I was elated when I was approved for an ARC. Though The Fugitives was published in the U.K. a year ago, the U.S. only gets it this coming Tuesday. Regardless of where you live, this is a book you need to read!
|The Fugitives by Jamal Mahjoub|
|Number of Pages||336|
|Format I Read||eBook (NetGalley)|
|Original Publication Date||January 18, 2022 (US)|
The Kamanga Kings, a Khartoum jazz band of yesteryear, is presented with the opportunity of a lifetime when a surprise letter arrives inviting them to perform in Washington, D.C. The only problem is . . . the band no longer exists.
Rushdy is a disaffected secondary school teacher and the son of an original Kamanga King. Determined to see a life beyond his own home, he sets out to revive the band. Aided by his unreliable best friend, all too soon an unlikely group are on their way, knowing the eyes of their country are on them.
As the group moves from the familiarity of Khartoum to the chaos of Donald Trump’s America, Jamal Mahjoub weaves a gently humorous and ultimately universal tale of music, belonging and love.
Special thanks to NetGalley and Canongate Books for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review!
The Fugitives opens in late-2010s Sudan. Rushdy is an English teacher who feels that he lives in the shadow of his late father, one of the founding members of a popular jazz band called the Kamanga Kings. Rushdy’s Uncle Maher (his mother’s brother) was another founding member of the band. Although the Kamanga Kings have been inactive for decades now – and indeed, several of the members are dead and the rest are getting old – Rushdy and his uncle are surprised when they get an exciting invitation one day. The Kamanga Kings are invited to perform in Washington, D.C. at a special music festival. With some encouragement from Rushdy and his best friend Hisham, the Kamanga Kings reform with old members and new ones. This Sudanese jazz band is determined to play at that American festival.
The first thing that drew me to The Fugitives is that it’s about a jazz band. Other than books and reading, my other big passion is music, and I always love reading novels that are about music in some way. Early on, The Fugitives includes some beautiful portrayals of music and of a love of music. Rushdy describes how important music is to him and his family; he describes the different influences that informed the Kamanga Kings’ unique sound. As a music lover myself, I could identify with Rushdy’s appreciation of songs, instruments, and performance.
I admit that I’m not very familiar Sudanese music, nor African music more generally. The only African artist I listen to much is K’naan from Somalia. So for me it was a treat to learn more about Sudanese music and the different sounds that make it up. It inspires me to seek out music from different artists around the continent. However, from a political standpoint, The Fugitives also provides some interesting information surrounding music’s place in Sudan. Music has a history of enlightening people and inspiring progress, and it’s fascinating to learn how music has been considered dangerous by Sudan’s government.
Beyond my passions for books and music, I also love travel – though that can be quite expensive and difficult, especially in a pandemic. And so armchair travel is invaluable. Here, readers get a glimpse into what Sudan is like, particularly its culture. I loved the chance to learn more about Sudan, its recent political history, its geography, and its people.
Though The Fugitives starts off in Sudan, most of the book is actually set in the United States. I enjoyed getting to see America through a traveler’s eyes and seeing the different instances of culture shock or just confusion at Americans’ ways. As a person who has lived abroad and is married to a man from another country, I’m familiar with some judgments people around the world have about Americans. For example, many think we smile too much or that our friendliness seems odd. We get some of that perspective in this novel, and I found it to be fun and charming.
However, The Fugitives also doesn’t shy away from tougher and more serious themes. The book is set during Trump’s administration and his horrible Muslim travel ban. As you might recall, Sudan was on the list of banned countries. This novel offers perspectives on immigration, asylum, refugees, the travel ban, and the way Americans think about foreigners. These Sudanese musicians have to fight stereotypes that they’re terrorists or trying to stay in the United States illegally. It’s not heavy-handed, but I found that The Fugitives offers some valuable discourse on these important topics.
Early on, it seems that The Fugitives has a clear story arc plotted out; surprisingly, about halfway through, the story goes in another direction. At times it feels a bit meandering, but ultimately I love how it comes together by the end. Without getting into spoilers, it ties together music with bigger themes in a climatic way that I found inspiring.
The Fugitives is a wonderfully written, musical, and thought-provoking novel that crosses Sudanese and American cultures. It’s charming and fun, a little bit adventurous, and filled with heart. I will be recommending it to everyone I know.
This is my first book by Jamal Mahjoub, and I’m eager to read more from him, so stay tuned for additional reviews of his books.
About the Author
Jamal Mahjoub was born in London in 1960. After living in Liverpool for several years, the family moved to Sudan, his father’s home country. Mahjoub attended Comboni College, run by Italian priests. He subsequently received a grant from Atlantic College in , and continued his studies in geology at the university of Sheffield. While still a student he began publishing his literary texts in magazines. After several changes of location, northern Europe eventually became his home base – yet his African roots still play a central role in his books. They incorporate stories and history, science and superstition and at the same time discuss the living conditions in which people from different backgrounds live together or in close proximity with each other.
»In the Hour of Signs« (1996) tells the story of the British conquest of at the end of the 19th century. The book transforms both protagonists of the conflict, the Muslim leader Mohammed Ahmed, called Mahdi, and the English General Gordon into symbolic figures. The main characters are farmers, shepherds or simple soldiers, and the uprising is described from their perspective as country dwellers or representatives of the colonial power. Mahjoub’s historical novel »The Carrier« (1998) deals with one of the pivotal moments in European thought: the development of the telescope and the corresponding astronomical methods of calculation, which paved the way for the heliocentric view of the world and the separation of science and religion. Mahjoub described his motivation: »I was fascinated by the question of why such a significant change in thought as marked by the Renaissance in Europe, didn’t occur in the Islamic world.« The young scholar Rashid al-Kenzy, son of a Nubian slave and falsely accused of murder, is reprieved by the dey of Algiers on condition that Rashid procure him the optical device, of whose capabilities people tell the most wondrous tales – and thus Rashid sets out on a long journey. In 2006 Majoub published his novel »Nubian Indigo«, whose story is set during the construction of the Aswan High Dam. »The Drift Latitudes« (2007) has present-day London as its setting. A successful architect, daughter of an immigrant from Trinidad and a German father whom she can hardly remember, receives several letters from her half-sister in , which cause her to begin to deal with her background.
The author has been awarded the Prix d’Astrobale for the novel »Travelling with Djinns« (2003) and the Guardian/Heinemann African Short Story Prize. After spending many years in the Danish city of Aarhus, Mahjoub is now living in Barcelona.