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Abdo Khal's Throw­ingS­parks doesn't wait to ease you gen­tly into the dark and per­verse jour­ney you are about to un­der­take; in­stead it plunges with­out warn­ing into a black hole, drag­ging you down with it, and soon, much like the pro­tag­o­nist, you too are fall­ing and fall­ing and fall­ing.

The hero is in­tro­duced in the first few lines as a grey­ing and jaded shadow of a man. You can smell his de­feat, the stench of his ex­is­tence waft­ing up as you turn the pages. And he doesn't deny it. In fact, at ev­ery pos­si­ble op­por­tu­nity Tariq re­minds you of his per­ver­sion and his ut­ter loss of hope of ever be­ing able to “come back”. The story be­gins at the bot­tom and you are left with a mix of dread and in­trigue at the thought of fol­low­ing his tale, go­ing into the sor­did de­tails of his jour­ney to de­prav­ity and be­ing forced to re­late to him.

From the shores of a bois­ter­ous Saudi fish­ing vil­lage to the glit­ter­ing cage that is the Mas­ter's Palace, Tariq's story is about base in­stincts spi­ral­ing out of con­trol, and the fu­til­ity of try­ing to es­cape the past. Khal sows seeds of un­ease as he talks about the pu­rity of young love and the per­ver­sions of lust in the same breath. Fa­ther, aunt, brother, friend, sweet­heart – Tariq loses some, finds others, each time los­ing a lit­tle part of him­self. You want to reach into the pages, snap him out of his de­cline and alert him to his im­pend­ing fate.

Shrouded in se­crecy, the Palace and its mys­te­ri­ous Mas­ter cast a con­stant shadow, both lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively, over Tariq's life. Im­mea­sur­able power and wealth have dis­torted the Mas­ter's psy­che and in his quest for new ex­cit­ing thrills, he un­car­ingly tram­ples on the lives of the peo­ple in his way. Tariq, in his haste to run away, will­ingly be­comes one of his vic­tims. The Mas­ter is rarely seen and barely heard from; his sin­is­ter com­mands in­ferred from a ges­ture, a look, a whis­per. He ceases to be a char­ac­ter and be­comes a ma­lig­nant force of na­ture, like a firestorm – deadly and un­pre­dictable.

Khal pop­u­lates the book with rich metaphors; some­times they fly thick and fast, one after the other, ex­haust­ing the reader. Facts and in­ci­dents are of­ten re­peated, with­out any real sense of why. But the po­etry of his lan­guage can­not be de­nied. For in­stance, Tariq, talk­ing about his pain and the strug­gle to re­claim at least some mea­sure of hu­man­ity lost in his ser­vice of the Mas­ter, says, “There was no safe har­bour for our way­ward souls. Our wounded spir­its car­ried on with their out­pour­ing of pent-up grief un­til all our days and nights in Jeddah seemed like a jour­ney through a vale of tears.” This kind of pow­er­ful im­agery, found abun­dantly through­out the book, to­gether with the sheer wretched­ness of the story and the lack of re­demp­tion for any of the char­ac­ters, stays with you long after you have shut the book.

Trans­lated and pub­lished by Blooms­bury Qatar Foun­da­tion Pub­lish­ing, the “con­tro­ver­sial and hard-hit­ting” pa­per­back novel must be a treat to read in Ara­bic, and trans­la­tors Maia Ta­bet and Michael K Scott must be com­mended on keep­ing the essence and beauty of the orig­i­nal lines in­tact. The book has so far been banned in three Arab coun­tries: Jor­dan, Kuwait and Khal's home Saudi Ara­bia, where this for­mer preacher and po­lit­i­cal sci­ence grad­u­ate con­tin­ues to live and work.

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