A 422-page book considerably shrinks the reviewer’s heart to a stringent timeline. Idle thoughts of trees and the environment waft. The heart toys with what is a well-known reviewer escapade—write erudite reviews without reading the book. On her part, author Fatima Bhutto doesn’t make it easier: “On Netty Jetty, overlooking the mangroves that crawl thin just before the Arabian Sea, kites swarm the sky like a thick cover of clouds, waiting for lovers to throw chunks of meat to them—or if the lovers cannot afford the bloody parcels sold on the bridge, the small doughy balls of bread.”
At the beginning, the narrative wobbles—over-described and threadbare, even self-conscious. It seems to stall progress and spread sideways. The magic is, and here I must credit the writer, these unconnected lazy images begin to cohere.
The novel educates as it rambles along, prompting a reenergised form of reading. The theme of the book is brave as it takes a visceral look at the crisis in Islam today viewed through three protagonists: Anita Rose/Layla and Monty from Pakistan and Sunny, a Portsmouth dude of Indian descent. Their lives, ambitions and concerns are in consonance with those of the secular young. And there is no way to write about this wasteland except with heart and beauty.
The bravery extends in not shying away from the Ummah Movement, Mosul, radicalisation and the bloody experiences of these urban deluded in the harsh realities of the desert. The cast of supporting characters is stellar too—whether the Lucknowi immigrant Sulaiman Jamil, Sunny’s Pa or his cousin the former radical Ozair now in a Reforming Radicals movement, Comrade Osama or the maalishwali Zenobia of Karachi.
With ambition and an almost encyclopaedic sweep of a monumental tragedy (often too misinterpreted to even comment on), a beautiful argument for a wider, more humane view of the crisis is put forth via some sublime craft. “She read them the same way she pored over school books, carefully turning the pages as though they might tear with force, memorising every word and expression, the way a map-reader traces lines, fearful of getting lost.” Where the author excels is in the inner spaces of her characters: their loneliness, longings and loss. All of it weaves into a tale profound and resonant. Something the reader begins to cherish, hold on to and reread.