Firstly, many thanks to Penguin UK and NetGalley for letting me review this book in advance, as always, this does not influence my review in any way. Just to let you know, All Men Want to Know is due to be published 6 August, 2020. You can pre order copies from the usual places!
All Men Want to Know
Author: Nina Bouraoui
Genres: Women’s literary fiction, auto-fiction, lesbian literature
Publication date: 6 August, 2020
My rating: ★★★★☆
This is a deeply moving work of “auto-fiction” told through the life experiences of its author, Nina Bouraoui. It combines the authors real life experiences growing up, but is a work of literary fiction in style and scope. Nina has lived a torn life, and one situated between two continents; Africa and Europe. She spent most of her childhood in Algeria where her Father was from before her Mother chose to move to Paris, because of the outbreak of Civil War. This toing and froing between two cultures, means that Nina struggles to come to terms with her identity, “France is an outfit I wear: Algeria is my skin, exposed to the sun and storms.”
The entire novel is told through vivid, first person narration. This may put some readers off, as there’s no typical story structure. However, I loved the sense of depth this created. The prose often reads as part poetry, part inner monologue of Nina’s thoughts, feelings and memories. I found it a harrowing read, as Nina never shies away from the honesty of her experience and the pain she has endured. In this day and age, we are so used to seeing peoples’ ‘real life’ experience through a filtered lens which often bears no reality, however, this novel strips it back to the bare bones. Thus, making it a moving depiction of the difficulties of coming of age, accepting oneself and learning how to live. It is a powerful portrayal of inner tournaments and the pain people go through during the process of accepting themselves.
Despite the novel lacking a traditional structure – it is divided loosely into four sections of memory which are used to account for the different periods in Nina’s life. These are: knowing, remembering, becoming and being. Each comment on her life at its different stages – from living in Algeria and witnessing its turbulence as a country, to beginning her new, independent life in Paris at the age of eighteen and toying with her sexuality. Due to this dual upbringing across continents – Nina grapples with her sexuality – she has been attracted to women for most of her life, however, accepting this has been her biggest struggle, “I want to know who I am, what I am made of, what I can hope for…”
Homosexuality is still illegal in Algeria today, which relates to the difficulties of not just Nina’s own acceptance of herself, but the society in which she grew up. In Paris, she feels freer to explore this, due to living in a more accepting, Western culture. She acknowledges this cultural and personal struggle vividly, “I’m a victim of my own homophobia” in which the reader is a witness, as Nina documents her first difficult experiences with love and the initial anxieties these bring.
Knowing, draws on Nina’s past experience in Algeria, as she accounts traumatic experiences of witnessing her Mother being sexually assaulted, and depicts the variable climate of Algeria which was going through civil unrest. I couldn’t help but feel this exposure must have impacted Nina’s conception of herself, which then impacted her attitudes towards her sexuality and ability to form relationships with women. She had to get over her own boundaries before those imposed on her from others.
Remembering, documents visions of her past which are mainly in Algeria. Despite the country’s beauty she remembers that, “violence is etched into the land, unending violence” and this struggle is symbolic in her own boundaries to self acceptance. Becoming, is the most ‘present’ aspect of this autobiography, as it follows Nina’s life as a young adult, living in Paris. She frequents a local, lesbian nightclub in the hope of finding love with other women. This is the most interesting part of the book, as it shows how her past struggles and different cultural upbringings shape her identity and coming to terms with herself. She goes up and down like a yo-yo between being proud of her sexuality and path in life, to feeling disgusted, “I’m nothing but a faggot” which demonstrates the tumultuous rage often experienced with coming of age sexuality. But, with an added distressing aspect – her home country of Algeria, would imprison her for displaying her love for women.
Being looks back on her life. This element shows herself starting to accept her identity and letting go of the past. She appears to have found happiness and self love, as a relationship with another woman blooms, “I am the same but I’ve changed, I’ve let go, I’m floating free on this waking dream….” The kind of self acceptance Nina finds, was relieving to read, after Nina’s continuous periods of self doubt. Finally, she appears to be content.
A stunning, autobiographical portrayal of the inner, psychological battle. Torn between two cultures and two ways of living, this documents Nina’s transition between hiding from the world and herself, and embracing it. Harrowing and dark at times, but also uplifting and beautiful.
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