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
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