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The Sound of Language    by Amulya Malladi order for
Sound of Language
by Amulya Malladi
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2007 (2007)

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Sound of Language explores the immigrant experience, but not one familiar to North American readers. The two leads in this novel are a young Afghan woman, Raihana - who has fled her own country at her husband's urging and taken refuge with her distant cousin Kabir and his wife Layla in Denmark - and elderly Danish widower Gunnar, who's in deep mourning for his wife Anna, with whom he shared a passion for beekeeping. In fact, each chapter of the book is prefaced by an informative entry from Anna's diary on A Year of Keeping Bees - and Raihana learns a great deal from it.

Raihana, who's in denial about her husband Aamir's probable fate in Kabul (he was arrested by the Taliban), lives contentedly in Skive (in Northern Denmark) with Kabir and Layla and their two-year-old son Shahrukh. And she struggles with the Danish language, which sounds to her like the buzzing of bees. Immigrants in Denmark are required to attend language school at an Integraion Center before they can apply to work, and must take on a praktik, a temporary job to help them integrate into Danish society.

Raihana's language teacher Christina, who cares deeply for her students and is also a friend of Gunnar's, suggests that Raihana assist him with beekeeping (which he has neglected since Anna's death) as her praktik. Though, lacking shared language and culture, a mutual understanding develops slowly between Gunnar and Raihana, it builds into a solid friendship based on the bridge of their common interest in bees. Each also emerges to a degree from their spouse's shadow - and Gunnar from his shell of grief - and finds a way to move on with life.

The Sound of Language is an absorbing novel in which the reader mentally cheers on this unusual relationship, despite the objections and distrust of friends and family on both sides. Of course it's not all honeyed sweetness and light. Not only must they overcome the casual prejudices that basically good people of each culture hold for each other, but Raihana's painful memories of what she escaped are evoked once more by violence and racism from young neo-Nazi Danes, who resent the immigrants' presence in their country.

Amulya Malladi, who addresses her novel 'To refugees everywhere - may you find home', has also written Song of the Cuckoo Bird, Serving Crazy with Curry, The Mango Season, and A Breath of Fresh Air.

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