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Leila Aboulela’s ‘Bird Summons’ takes the traditional road trip novel down a new path

Leila Aboulela’s latest novel, the elegant “Bird Summons,” gives mischievous treatment to the classic road trip narrative. The Sudanese Aboulela, who now lives in Scotland, doubly subverts what in the West is a traditionally white, male genre by casting Muslim women as the rogue adventurers.

The story begins with Salma, the leader of the Aberdeen-based Arabic Speaking Muslim Women’s Group, who plans a road trip into the Scottish Highlands to visit the grave of Lady Evelyn Cobbold, the first British woman to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca.

To persuade her fellow members to make the journey, Salma says of Lady Evelyn: “She worshipped as we worshipped, though she kept her own culture, wore Edwardian fashion, shot deer and left instructions for bagpipes to be played at her funeral. She is the mother of Scottish Islam, and we need her as our role model.”

When news spreads that Lady Evelyn’s grave has been desecrated, though, most of the members drop out, leaving Salma to make the trip with Iman, her beautiful, pampered “sidekick,” and Moni, the disgruntled and overtaxed mother of a son who has severe cerebral palsy. The trio are “together but not together,” Aboulela writes, “fellow travelers, summoned by Fate. Salma wanted to visit Lady Evelyn’s grave, Iman wanted to be with Salma, Moni was worried about the amount of walking involved.”

While the women embark on their quest in search of something concrete — the gravesite — the journey takes a mystical turn once they arrive at the monastery turned resort where Salma has booked a cottage. In the misty Highland forests, freed from domestic burden, the travelers transmogrify from wives and mothers into individual beings whose desires threaten to consume them, and whose fears take on physical form.

Egyptian immigrant Salma, who is married to a white British convert to Islam and who feels increasingly distanced from her spouse and her four fully assimilated children, has been secretly messaging an old love from back home. Moni has visions of what it might be like to mother a healthy child. And Iman, unmoored from her latest marriage early in the book, finds a trove of costumes in the cottage and assumes a new persona each day, a ritual that leads her to examine how she chooses to dress and why.

In a skillful blending of Eastern and Western literary tradition, Aboulela’s characters are visited by the Hoopoe, a sacred bird that symbolizes wisdom and filial piety. It leads them each through a kind of spiritual wilderness and delivers them back to the cottage, and one another, changed.

The novel possesses all the pleasures we’ve come to expect from Aboulela, the author of “Lyrics Alley” and “The Translator”: psychological acuity, rich characterization, intricate emotional plotting. And prose that is clear, lovely and resonant as a ringing bell.

But this book is also the mark of an author refreshing herself aesthetically, as Aboulela introduces a fantastical golden thread into realism’s tight weave, to magical effect. While the themes that often populate her work are again examined here — cross-cultural marriage, faith, migration, notions of home — this time, the central questions are metaphysical: What lies within us? And what waits for us beyond this world?

With Aboulela leading us, the quest for answers is a thrilling, soulful adventure.

Keija Parssinen is the author of “The Ruins of Us” and “The Unraveling of Mercy Louis,” and teaches creative writing at Kenyon College.

By Leila Aboulela

Grove Atlantic. 304 pp. $16

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