twenty three

This is a terrific novel. A full blown grown up of a book, that reels you in, gives you characters and a story you care about. It burns slow at the start but later you realise the importance of that scene setting, how it created the backdrop and the balance for what it builds to in the final pages.

It follows the lives of three siblings, second generation migrants from Pakistan, whose father died in “mysterious circumstances” while being moved between Bagram and Guantanamo. He had been largely absent from their childhood, fighting in a variety of theatres of war – Chechnya, Afghanistan etc – an absence that manifested itself as bitterness for a father they never really knew, among the kids. The boy/girl twins Parvaiz and Aneeka had in part been raised by their older sister Isma after the early death of their mother.

For a while the story is of the twins as they hit 19 years, struggling with modern day Britain, everyday prejudice, how to square their Muslim upbringing with everything the see around them, Isma, 9 years older than the twins and finally rid of her ‘mothering duties’ breaks free and contact becomes tenuous. Eventually Parvaiz lies to everyone and heads off to Syria, ‘radicalised’ in a way that no one in the family saw happening. Aneeka strikes up a relationship with the shallow, gullible son of the first Asian Home Secretary.

The novel takes flight and moves into classic territory when Parvaiz is killed overseas and the UK government refuse access to return his body for burial. Here, moving into land previously occupied by Antigone, Aneeka, takes herself out to Pakistan and begins a vigil by her twin’s body that is beautiful, heart wrenching and fleetingly surreal. A chain of willing hands constantly work to replenish the mound of ice surrounding the young man’s body, trying to ward off the worst of the Pakistani sun, as it lies in the open, under a tree, while bureaucracy grinds to find some resolution. The machinations of the governments of the UK and Pakistan play out in the background, live social media footage plays across different communities and a web is spun.

A high quality novel built on a great idea and expertly realised.

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