“Elizabeth Webster is a spinster pushing seventy. Forced out of her teaching job, she unleashes her sharp tongue and dogmatic opinions on everyone in the English village of Little Blessington. Then, one night, she grinds to a dead halt. To recover from this illness, she travels to North Africa where she has a brush with terrorism – not that she cares about politics. Three weeks after Miss Webster has returned home her doorbell rings. There stands a beautiful young Arab man carrying a large suitcase. Who is he, why is he there and what does he want?”
Miss Webster and Chérif manages the difficult feat of being a feel-good book while dealing with topics such as 9/11, racism and the clashing of cultures and people. This is one of those books that give you much more pleasure then you´d ever expect from such a small volume, and it´s mostly the wonderful characters that make it so. I´m very glad Bloomsbury decided to outfit this novel with such a great and colourful cover, otherwise I might have never noticed it and would have missed out on an utterly charming read.
Miss Webster has to be one of my favorite characters, she´s an old spinster and a very no-nonsense type of person. She has never married, wanting to be completely independent from other people. However, after she has to leave her position as a French teacher Miss Webster begins to notice that her desire for independence and privacy has isolated her from other people. Her doctor´s advice to travel to a far away francophone country where she does not know anyone leads her to North Africa (probably Marocco, though it´s never explicitly stated). There she starts to feels alive again, people are not as quickly rebuffed by her sharp tongue and rudeness, and trying to make sense of this foreign culture revives Miss Webster.
After returning to her little village however, she feels quickly isolated and bored again but then Chérif arrrives and Miss Webster welcomes him into her life. The other villagers are afraid of him, and suspect him of being a terrorist. Miss Webster however learns to be a friend and defends Chérif with the same aggressivity that she formerly used to keep her students in check or oppose village decisions. So there are instances of racism that make this book so bittersweet but don´t be put off reading it because of that!
Chérif remains much of a mystery, as we share Miss Webster´s point of view. Some descriptions seem very unrealistic but at the same time bring a lot of warmth to this novel, Chérif´s amazement over an apple tree, his inability to understand the concept of an unmarried woman until Miss Webster compares herself to Miss Marple and Chérif from then on thinks she is a detective. It´s not a realistic or even plausible story, but you´re either charmed and don´t care, or this one is just not for you. Apart from the story, I very much enjoyed Duncker´s writing. It has rythm.
From what I understand this is rather different from Duncker´s usual oevre (it´s all the French in this book! 😉 ), but I´m looking forward to reading more of her works. Any recommendations?
Some of my favorite passages:
“Other people either asked you for money or made you listen to their life stories. She had no idea which was worse.” (30)
“The tea tasted very sweet. The conversation came straight out of Alice in Wonderland.” (65)
“Theatre is the language of terrorism. They need an audience to witness the event; otherwise the performance is worthless.” (78)
“Beauty always appears sinister to the paranoid, because it blinds you to other things.” (115)
On making a Guy Fawkes: “`It´s my sister. She´s being incinerated in absentia.´ declared Miss Webster, cool as a contract assassin. `And she´s going to the stake wearing all her own clothes.” (131)
“Miss Webster could no longer imagine music that did not benefit from the anarchic attack of several thousand amplified volts. She had passed, imperceptibly, into the electronic age.” (164)
“When a tale is read aloud it hollows out an echo in the air that remains even after the reader falls silent. The word has been spoken; it is no longer elusive and imagined, as it always is in writing. It blossoms with the authority of being heard; the spoken word is greeted, witnessed.” (196)
“It is a rare thing that has come to pass if a book fails utterly to speak.” (216)
Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I´ll add a link.