River Spirit

Leila Aboulela

March 2023 Literary Fiction

New from the winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing

Leila Aboulela, hailed as “a versatile prose stylist” (New York Times) has also been praised by J.M. Coetzee, Ali Smith, and Ben Okri, among others, for her rich and nuanced novels depicting Islamic spiritual and political life. Her new novel is an enchanting narrative of the years leading up to the British conquest of Sudan in 1898, and a deeply human look at the tensions between Britain and Sudan, Christianity and Islam, colonizer and colonized. In River Spirit, Aboulela gives us the unforgettable story of a people who—against the odds and for a brief time—gained independence from foreign rule through their willpower, subterfuge, and sacrifice.

When Akuany and her brother Bol are orphaned in a village raid in South Sudan, they’re taken in by a young merchant Yaseen who promises to care for them, a vow that tethers him to Akuany through their adulthood. As a revolutionary leader rises to power – the self-proclaimed Mahdi, prophesied redeemer of Islam – Sudan begins to slip from the grasp of Ottoman rule, and everyone must choose a side. A scholar of the Qur’an, Yaseen feels beholden to stand against this false Mahdi, even as his choice splinters his family. Meanwhile, Akuany moves through her young adulthood and across the country alone, sold and traded from house to house, with Yaseen as her inconsistent lifeline. Everything each of them is striving for – love, freedom, safety – is all on the line in the fight for Sudan.

Through the voices of seven men and women whose fates grow inextricably linked, Aboulela’s latest novel illuminates a fraught and bloody reckoning with the history of a people caught in the crosshairs of imperialism. River Spirit is a powerful tale of corruption, coming of age, and unshakeable devotion – to a cause, to one’s faith, and to the people who become family.


“Aboulela reveals the thin lines that can demarcate religious zeal and patriotic fervor, social crusade and personal recklessness, as she creates a finely wrought and compellingly in-depth drama about a land and its people.” —Booklist, starred review

“The action-packed latest from Aboulela turns on Sudan’s religious civil war in the late 19th century…Aboulela casts a scrutinous and perceptive eye on the motives of religious leaders and colonial forces, and she layers the narrative with a rich blend of languages and cultures. This brims with drama and nuance.” —Publishers Weekly

“One of the great pleasures of ‘River Spirit’ is listening as the novel tells us how to read it…At the end of the book, we are left with the weightiest of questions: What do we believe, and what are we willing to sacrifice for those beliefs? If we give up our convictions for safety, what is that safety worth? Where is our moral center, how close to the heart? Aboulela has written a novel of war, love, faith, womanhood and — crucially — the tussle over truthful public narratives. From 19th-century Sudan to present-day America, the questions, in their travel to us, grow only more pressing.” —The New York Times