An ex­trem­ist turned by chance en­counter

A de­but novel set in the north of Eng­land which turns on a sui­cide bomber’s new love in­ter­est fails to con­vince Matthew Adams

The National - News - The Review - - Fiction - Matthew Adams lives in London and writes for the TLS, The Spec­ta­tor and the Lit­er­ary Re­view.

Nadim Saf­dar’s de­but novel tells the story of a man named Akram Khan. Akram, who was born to Pak­istani par­ents in the English Black Coun­try town of Cradley Heath, used to be a sergeant in the British Army. When we en­counter him at the open­ing of the novel, we dis­cover that he is lonely and frus­trated, in part be­cause his wife Azra (to whom he was be­trothed by his par­ents as a teenager), has never al­lowed him to con­sum­mate their mar­riage: “the mem­bra­nous sheet” in which she wraps her­self at bed­time he sees as “pro­tec­tion” against his ef­forts at se­duc­tion.

“For a time”, he tells us, “my hands were hope­ful: brush­ing against her shoul­ders, play­ing with a loose strand of her hair ... In the cold house, lis­ten­ing to the rain lash against the bed­room win­dow and feel­ing lone­lier than I imag­ined pos­si­ble, again and again I would try.”

Yet his sense of iso­la­tion also comes from his mem­o­ries of grow­ing up in Bri­tain as a young man of Pak­istani her­itage at a time when racism was com­mon, vo­cif­er­ous, vi­o­lent; from his up­bring­ing in a fam­ily in which he never re­ally felt any love; and from his faith.

A de­vout Mus­lim, he feels him­self to be sep­a­rate from, and su­pe­rior to, his in­suf­fi­ciently de­vout fel­low cit­i­zens, while wor­ry­ing that his own re­li­gious fidelity might not be per­fect: the “thick and densely black” beard he wears “marks” him “as one who has rejected the van­ity of the in­fi­del”, yet he is trou­bled by his “su­per­sti­tious” at­ti­tude to prayer. “Some­where in­side of me”, he says later in the book, “is a deep flaw.”

These var­i­ous forms of alien­ation are suf­fi­ciently strong to have con­vinced Akram to em­bark on a sui­cide-bomb­ing mis­sion. At 11am on Ar­mistice Day, the day on which the novel is set, he is to make his way to a lo­cal war memo­rial to det­o­nate his weapon in the midst of the as­sem­bled crowds. We join Akram on his mis­sion as, in the small hours of the morn­ing, he pre­pares him­self for mar­tyr­dom. Ini­tially, the novel looks as if it will work as a con­ven­tional first-per­son nar­ra­tive in which, as the ter­ror­ist makes his way to his tar­get, the reader is granted ac­cess to his thoughts and mo­ti­va­tions, which are de­signed to hu­man­ise and de­monise him in roughly equal mea­sure. And this, in a way, the book does.

But it also com­pli­cates the con­ven­tion – if only in a slight way – by hav­ing Akram, as he wan­ders the pre-dawn streets in prepa­ra­tion for his mis­sion, en­counter a pros­ti­tute named Grace.

They get talk­ing; Grace in­vites Akram to her home; and there the two of them con­verse for many hours. Grace tells Akram about the daugh­ter who was taken away from her by the au­thor­i­ties.

Akram tells Grace the long story of his rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion. It in­volves an ado­les­cence that fea­tured a lo­cal pae­dophile; racist peers; a cold and taunt­ing fa­ther. The re­sult­ing nar­ra­tive, though not with­out mo­ments of in­ter­est and in­sight, is not a suc­cess. The clum­sily-named Grace is a per­func­tory cre­ation (she is the de­pressed, kind and “au­then­tic” pros­ti­tute through whom the pro­tag­o­nist, Akram, finds some­thing like love and re­demp­tion), and this care­less­ness per­vades the rest of the novel.

Saf­dar’s prose is al­most al­ways in­ert, hack­neyed, un­con­vinc­ing. Thus, in the course of two pages, we find Akram telling us how thoughts “flashed through my mind”; “years had crept up on her”; “her face lit up”; “tears welled up in her eyes”. The same pages of­fer an ex­am­ple of Saf­dar’s anti-tal­ent for cap­tur­ing speech (“‘You’re bluff­ing’, I sneered”; “I swal­lowed hard. ‘I sup­pose it was al­ways go­ing to come to this’”), and a lit­tle fur­ther on, when Grace re­sponds to Akram’s sug­ges­tion that a sta­ble re­la­tion­ship might help her to re­gain cus­tody of her daugh­ter, we are greeted by a mo­ment of truly as­tound­ing crass­ness: “It’d be a sui­cide mis­sion,” she says, “to take me on.”

This is not in­tended to serve as a joke (when Grace speaks those words, she does not know what Akram is plan­ning). But it does serve as an en­cap­su­la­tion of al­most ev­ery­thing that is wrong with this life­less and ill-con­ceived novel.

Au­thor Nadim Saf­dar. Courtesy Sa­har Afzal / At­lantic Books

Akram’s War Nadim Saf­dar At­lantic Books Dh63

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