Night of Power

By Jasmina Odor

by Anar Ali
Viking
2019/$24.95/240 pp.

Night of Power is the debut novel of Anar Ali, a short-fiction writer who grew up in Red Deer. The book opens with an evocative prologue of a man waking in a frozen prairie landscape, attempting but failing to rise to his feet. In the opening chapter, we see the same man, Mansoor Visram, in his tiny dry-cleaning shop, musing on his planned business expansion, through which he intends to fulfill the family legacy of self-made men. The setting is contemporary Calgary, and Mansoor’s small family—wife Layla and son Ashif—are members of the city’s intimate Ismaili community.

That chapter is a microcosm of the novel’s most compelling themes—the oppressive expectations of manhood passed down through generations, the traumatic effects of male chauvinism, the painful pursuit of the immigrant dream. Any recent or even second-generation Canadian immigrant will recognize the accuracy and nuance with which Ali delineates this mindset, part of which is the need for a man to “not go out worse than he came in.” Children of first-generation immigrants, especially, will recognize the complex dynamics of such families, the split loyalties and high expectations that dominate Ashif’s life.

The father/son relationship—Mansoor expects Ashif to go into business with him; Ashif sacrifices to please his father—forms half of the plot. The other half is about Layla, her growing clarity about her relationship with Mansoor, her evolving understanding of her son, and her lonely spiritual striving, partly embodied in her “famous chicken samosas” made exclusively for the imam. This strong foundation and the richness of the characters’ inner lives, their desires and delusions, carry the reader easily into the centre of the narrative.

But the novel’s second half loses its power. The plot begins to feel strained; a potential high point of drama, a one-on-one conversation between father and son in which both reveal their intents, is oddly flat. Revelations about Layla’s suffering in her marriage appear late, only to be quickly and heavy-handedly resolved. Ashif reckons with his own darkness in the frozen wilderness of the Columbia Icefield, but the dramatic force is weak. The later scenes of Mansoor flailing in that snowy prairie darkness also lack poetic charge, despite the intentional imagery of the brilliant blue bird that tends to him, with its golden crown and a “melody like a muezzin’s call.”

These elements have literary purpose, but the whole just doesn’t leap into life. The reader can’t be sure why—perhaps haste, perhaps the wrong stylistic register, perhaps some deeper failure of conception. This novel is admirable, intelligent, relevant and relatable, but it doesn’t quite pierce the heart.

—Jasmina Odor teaches at Concordia University of Edmonton.

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