Saturday, 22 December 2018

Aya Dane by Mhani Alaoui + Author Interview

Aya Dane by Mhani Alaoui
Published by Interlink on the 30th October 2018.

My Book Of The Month for December 2018

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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Aya Dane creates mixed media paintings and writes a diary in her studio above a strange, old Cambridge, Boston, townhouse. There she lives alone, having left her childhood home in Tangiers. Though she has carved a name for herself in the art world, she allows herself just one close relationship, to an intimate companion named David.

One day, Aya receives a letter from a powerful, enigmatic patron, an invitation to submit her ultimate work to his collection. If he deems it worthy, he promises, her art will live on forever. Aya finds herself unable to resist the mysterious invitation, and challenge.

But as she begins to work on the commissioned painting, from her top-floor perch, the streets of Tangiers reappear to her. Their white-and-blue walls, purple bougainvillea, sweetness and sorrow bring back to life people and events she thought she'd left behind. Aya becomes haunted by forgotten scenes, only to discover that she herself is being painted, on a canvas from which it seems impossible to escape.

I adored the previous Mhani Alaoui book I read, Dreams Of Maryam Tair, so was thrilled when her publisher offered me a review copy of Alaoui's new novel, Aya Dane. The two novels are very different in their subject matter, but both share the author's gorgeously rich prose style. I love how Mhani was able to portray the world as Aya sees it, ie through an artist's appreciation of colour and texture, and the scenes where she is working alone in her attic studio are wonderfully vivid. I really felt as though I could witness the creative process happening in front of me and, for a brief moment at least, was able to glimpse behind Aya's protective facade.

Aya Dane is a intensely complex character. I didn't feel that I completely understood her until the end of the novel and even then I had questions about whose version of the truth was the one I should accept. Alaoui shows us Aya through her own eyes and through the eyes of her lover, David. She is undoubtedly a damaged soul. Perhaps this is as a result of her unusual upbringing, or her deliberate self-isolation, or her inability to reconcile the Moroccan and American aspects of her life. Aya identifies with a particular Frida Kahlo painting (showing the artist as two women) and this sense of a split identity threads through the novel.

As we learn more about Aya's Moroccan childhood and the way in which she parts from her family, I felt I had more understanding of how this woman had become so alienated from the world around her. Yet I also loved that, howver convincing her descriptions and story, I was never completely sure whether Aya was telling the truth or her truth, and how much might simply be a feverishly imaginative mind. Aya Dane is a superb novel for readers who appreciate unreliable narrators, immersive storytelling and picturesque poetic prose.

After reading Aya Dane, I was delighted to be given the opportunity to ask Mhani a couple of questions:

How much of challenge was it to translate Aya's visualisation into word form? 
I think I first saw colors then words, if that makes sense. Sometimes words are just color, scents, diffuse feelings and I believe those are what I was chasing behind for Aya.

Do you have a preferred writing space or even a studio like Aya's?
Actually, I do. A small space behind the garage and in front of a compact circular garden in my house. It's my office, though that sounds pretentious. It's full of books, a couch, a wooden table, a computer and various syllabi and notes from The classes I teach. I love this space . It's quiet, brown and green. My kids, unfortunately, love it too!

Thank you Mhani!

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Mhani Alaoui / Contemporary fiction / Books from Morocco


  1. Hmm... I'm interested in her reason why she isolates herself and it would be intriguing for sure to piece together the mystery of her past and how she got to where she is.

    1. I loved discovering Aya's motivations and her sense of herself. She's a wonderfully portrayed character

  2. Aya is obviously really a complex character and I'm impressed about the author that he was able to create her in that way. Thanks for sharing as I always interested about people's character that are not mainstream.
    Have a healthy and wonderful New Year!
    xx from Bavaria/Germany, Rena

    1. I think as a psychologist you'd appreciate reading about this character. She's certainly unusual