CAIRO CIRCLES

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Spanning several decades in the lives of its characters, this novel puts a group of young Egyptians and Egyptian Americans through a host of familial, moral, and psychological challenges. Mahmoud takes his time in establishing the full scope of the story, but it gradually becomes clear that it’s exploring the wake of two traumatic experiences. The book opens in 2002 with Zeina, a girl from a working-class background who has a fantastic singing voice. She dreams of growing up to be a professional singer, which puts her at odds with her family. Some time later, she vanishes. Meanwhile, Sheero, who lives in New York and narrates several of the chapters, discovers that his estranged cousin, Amir, has carried out a mass shooting in New York City. As Sheero looks back over his fraught relationship with Amir and loses himself in whiskey and cocaine, Zeina’s brothers, Omar and Mustafa, struggle to find places for themselves in Egypt, a country going through substantial political changes. Sheero’s best friend, Taymour—whose family employed Zeina’s mother as a maid—brings the two plotlines together. There’s a lot to admire here, from the way Mahmoud moves the action forward and backward in time and parcels out information about the different characters. But the novel can be frustrating in places—watching Sheero wrestle with both his memories and an onslaught of media attention in the aftermath of Amir’s violent act makes for compelling reading, but a large chunk of his inner conflict is resolved in passing late in the novel. It doesn’t always click seamlessly, but when this book hits its stride, it does so with great power.

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