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Refugee tries to fit in to new life

“The Sound of Language,” by Amulya Malladi. Random House. 244 pp. $14.95 paper.By Cynthia Murphy
For the Salisbury Post
Amulya Malladi’s latest novel, “The Sound of Language,” is a powerful account of a refugee’s struggle to build a new life in a strange new world.
In this case, Raihana escapes war-torn Afghanistan and begins a new life with distant relatives in Denmark. Her journey to Denmark actually remains a mystery for much of the novel. Malladi only chooses to reveal bits of Raihana’s background occasionally. Such treatment makes Raihana a much more compelling character.
In many ways, Raihana’s story is a classic one of a fish out of water. She feels totally out of place in Denmark. To her, the Danish language sounds like the buzzing of bees. She struggles with daily tasks such as shopping. Raihana begins to grasp the language through language classes and a required apprenticeship.
While the apprenticeship, or “praktik” as it is called in Denmark, is a requirement of the language school, Raihana’s selection of a praktik with a widowed beekeeper is a rather unorthodox choice. Her praktik draws criticism from both the immigrant community and the Danish community. The level of prejudice on both sides is somewhat appalling.
Raihana and the beekeeper, Gunnar, build an unlikely friendship as they nurture the bee colonies. The praktik allows Raihana to enter the Danish world. In turn, it helps Gunnar re-enter the world.
When he first meets Raihana, Gunnar is still reeling from the sudden death of his wife. He tries to escape his grief through alcohol and isolation. Working with Raihana gives Gunnar a new purpose in his life. In turn, Raihana finds a new home in the beekeeping world.
While Raihana tries to start over, the immigrant community inadvertently holds her back. As long as Raihana keeps close ties to her fellow refugees, she keeps one foot in Afghanistan. She refuses to wear traditional Muslim garments such as a hijab or an abaya, but Raihana does form close ties with the other refugees.
However, she also creates resentment in the community when she considers turning down a marriage proposal. Raihana remains trapped between the Danish and Afghan worlds, but she eventually finds a balance. After months of working with bees and Gunnar, Danish sounds less like buzzing to Raihana.
Prejudice plays an important role in the novel. In Raihana’s past life in Afghanistan, prejudice against women shaped her daily life. Prejudice leads to violence again in her Danish life. Although violence was part of her old life, it seems out of place in Raihana’s new life. Her reaction is both painful and poignant. “The familiar taste of fear filled her mouth again … here in pristine Denmark, the wound seemed uglier than it would have in Kabul.”
There is an interesting parallel story in “The Sound of Language.” Each chapter begins with an entry from a beekeeper’s diary. The diary was written by Gunnar’s late wife, Anna. Her diary entries provide a link between the past and present for Gunnar. The entries also parallel Raihana’s experiences as a novice beekeeper and provide the reader with useful knowledge about bees.
“The Sound of Language” features sparse prose. In most instances, Malladi chooses to show rather than tell her story. She uses few adjectives, but the style suits the story. Flowery language would not have captured the essence of Malladi’s characters. This style also maintains the mystery surrounding Raihana’s life in Afghanistan.”The Sound of Language” is a compelling novel. Although it is set in modern Denmark, its themes and conflicts are universal. If you’re looking for a smart, interesting book for spring, then don’t miss this one.
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Cynthia Murphy is an avid reader.

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