Wednesday, 27 June 2018

The Occasional Virgin by Hanan Al-Shaykh

The Occasional Virgin by Hanan Al-Shaykh
English language translation by Catherine Cobham published in the UK by Bloomsbury on the 14th June 2018.

Featured in Cover Characteristics: Swimming

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Where to buy this book:

The Book Depository : from £13.88 (HB)
Wordery : from £11.13 (HB)
Waterstones : from £16.99 (HB)
Amazon : from $11.18 / £5.90 (used PB)
Prices and availability may have changed since this post was written

Huda and Yvonne are on holiday in the Italian Riviera, enjoying the sun and the sparkling Mediterranean, reminiscent of their childhoods in Lebanon. Yvonne doesn't know what she's doing wrong, either there or back in London where she runs an ad agency – she seems to spend her time waiting for the right man to come along and not leave again just as quickly. Her friend Huda has no problems in this department, only she isn't really interested in her effect on men – till Hisham comes along. But it isn't love spurring Huda on, it's her desire to teach him a lesson. Because while you can't escape your past, you can perhaps avenge it. 

Frank, funny and fearless, The Occasional Virgin is the colourful, wickedly entertaining story of two unforgettable women and the lengths we'll go to for love.

The Occasional Virgin is an unusual novel that focuses on the, frankly, odd choices made by two outwardly successful women. Both are originally Lebanese, but emigrated in adulthood to Toronto and London respectively. The novel felt as though it naturally fell into three sections of which I loved the first. Muslim Huda and Christian Yvonne are holidaying together in a wonderfully evoked Italian seaside town. We see their reminiscences about their Lebanese childhoods which are dominated by similar repressive outlooks towards women - regardless of their families' differing religions. We also get to join the women simply enjoying the prospect of a holiday romance and eyeing up the local talent. Up until this point, I was happy reading and felt I understood the characters well. I didn't necessarily agree with all their decisions and opinions, but I had settled in for a good read.

When the action switches to London however, I soon felt as though I must have accidentally picked up a different book. There's a convoluted scene set in Speaker's Corner which starts out making some excellent points about tolerance and people's right to make their own lifestyle choices. This leads into a weird triangle with both Huda and Yvonne narrowing their sights towards the same man. Don't be fooled by the synopsis though - this isn't love. One is driven by spite and the other by a blinding desire to get pregnant. I was disappointed that the interesting, rounded characters from Italy were abruptly flung into quite bizarre situations and I struggled to understand their decisions - particularly Huda's - due to a lack of realistic motivation. Would a woman really go through such a lengthy charade?

Possibly if I were Lebanese myself, or at least had a strong understanding of Arabic upbringings for girls, I might have made more sense of what happens. I look forward to reading some #OwnVoices reviews in due course which might help me. In the meantime though, I would highly recommend reading this book as an Italian holiday novella, but maybe then let Huda and Yvonne go on their way without following them!

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Hanan Al-Shaykh / Contemporary fiction / Books from Lebanon


  1. This does sound like it took kind of an odd turn. That's a good point though and a good idea to check out some #ownvoices reviews to see if maybe it's just a difference in culture and upbringing making it seem odd.

    1. The turn the story took seemed too 'out there' for me!

  2. That is surely an eye-catching title :D too bad it was a letdown!

    1. I had quite high hopes for this one and it is still good, but I didn't feel it kept up its early promise.