Posted by: Sally Ingraham | February 28, 2011

Sugar Street

sugar streetby Naguib Mahfouz
translated by William Maynard Hutchins and Angele Botros Samaan

It seems a bit harsh to say that Sugar Street‘s redeeming quality is that it is somewhat shorter than the volumes that proceeded it in The Cairo Trilogy. However, I must ruefully admit that this is so. An overwhelming feeling of relief possessed me as I reached the end, and finally bid farewell to it’s strange and sad collection of characters. The book was anti-climatic – not the grand finale of a sweeping family epic, but the awkward petering out of a story that actually was never very epic. The once at least slightly vibrant characters were reduced to disappointed shells of themselves, and since they were so tired of existing, I was more than happy to let them fade away. The social and political upheaval of the time ought to have infused the story with new levels of excitement, but while there were a few air raids, and girls went to school, and the grandchildren of al-Sayyid Ahmad wrote articles for radical magazines and married whomever they chose to…it was all a bit of a fizzle. I found Kamal’s loss of heart and spirit more ridiculous than poignant, especially given that it was harped on about unendingly. Mahfouz seemed to lose direction with this book, which could have been intentional, and could have been a comment on how directionless the average muddled up life is. I suppose I wasn’t really expecting a happy ending, but there was so much tension built up in the first two books that I was expecting a popping balloon, and not one with the air let slowly out, squeaking miserably. Bah!

I’m not sorry I read the trilogy, and there were certainly elements that appealed to me at times. It was an interesting journey, just not one that will win a place on my favorite books list any time soon!

Thanks to Richard for hosting The Cairo Trilogy readalong. You’ll find his post about Sugar Street here, as well as links to other opinions.

Previously: Palace Walk, and Palace of Desire


  1. Sarah, I’m sorry…but I couldn’t agree more with your post. “It was all a bit of a fizzle,” indeed. Am hoping to hear from some people who actually enjoyed the trilogy from end to end so they can explain their appreciation for the work because I’m not sure why people rave about it so enthusiastically. I only liked parts of it. Very disappointed.

    • I only liked parts of it too, but I can kind of see how it’s impressive as a whole… I didn’t care for the storytelling though, and never really connected with the characters. I’m inclined to feel spiteful toward Mahfouz at the moment.

  2. That’s what I liked about this one too – that it was so much shorter! But I actually liked that the children seemed faded compared to the previous volumes. It made an interesting contrast with the grandchildren, particularly Khadija’s two boys, who are just starting out and are far more active than their forebears (except Fahmy). Sugar Street overall had an aura of both finality and continuity.

    • I’m glad that you liked this one a bit more than me, since your review called to mind a few things about the story that I did like. I think after the slog through Palace of Desire I just couldn’t be bothered with Sugar Street, and so I did not devote many brain cells to it… I agree that the book felt both like an ending and the start of a new story, and in spite of myself I almost want to know what happens next – especially to Ahmad.

  3. Mahfouz seemed to lose direction with this book, which could have been intentional, and could have been a comment on how directionless the average muddled up life is.

    I agree – and I also agree with your general sense of being too tired of the characters and their angst by the end of the trilogy to care which option is true. Blurgh. As much as I hated al-Sayyid Ahmad during the first book, he was at least a vivid and undeniable presence, something the subsequent books lacked. Which was frustrating because I don’t believe there’s anything intrinsically more vivid or interesting about a tyrant than a reasonable person living a healthy life.

    • Gosh, you’re right. For all that I basically despised al-Sayyid Ahmad, he was definitely the most vibrant character… And Mahfouz pointed out at length that he possessed so many personal attributes that everyone else in the story lacked. I wonder how much of al-Sayyid Ahmad is drawn from Mahfouz’s own life – a portrait of his own father?? Must research…

  4. I, too, wish that this final book had a stronger conclusion. The familial characterizations were usually interesting, though.

    Did you do that research on Mahfouz’s family background? Making me wonder if Mahfoud identified the most with Kamal –partly because Mahfouz himself didn’t marry until he was in his 40s.

    • I haven’t yet, but thanks for the reminder! I too wonder if Kamal is at least partially autobiographical…

  5. […] saw the completion of The Cairo Way readalong hosted by Richard. That was an experience, one that still makes me growl “Bah!” when I remember it. Ah, Mahfouz. I won’t be […]

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