Book Review: The Study Circle

“There was something fundamental at stake. Deep-seated ways of looking at the world that were at odds.”

The Study Circle, by Haroun Khan, is set in a South London housing estate of graffitied tower blocks where the simmering resentments of a second generation immigrant Muslim community are approaching boiling point. Harassed by the police on the streets and passed over for employment due to their names, the young men are urged by their parents and religious leaders to remain calm and obliging. The story is a powerful evocation of the day to day challenges which make this entreaty such a tough ask.

Ishaq, Marwane and Shams have been friends since school. The former two now attend a good university while Shams struggles to find a job. After several false starts he agrees to run deliveries for Mujahid, a local hard man and ex-convict trying to provide for his family any way he can. Sham’s new role brings him into contact with vocal supporters of the EDL. When the police and then a man claiming to work for MI5 question Shams he must make difficult choices.

For several years Ishaq has regularly attended a Study Circle. Here he and like minded peers from his community listen to a speaker, Ayub, as he reads from revered texts, and talks through the basic tenets of the Islamic faith. Ishaq wishes to be a good Muslim, striving to improve piety and character. His ideals are tested by the realities of blatant animosity that impacts his day to day experiences. Government, the media and those in positions of authority are increasingly strident in their prejudices and fear of followers of Islam.

Ishaq’s parents wish him to complete his degree, get a job, marry, have children and make a good life for himself by keeping his head down and acting compliant. Ishaq is questioning if he can live this way. On the estate are the likes of Mujahid who believes power and thereby rights and respect can only be earned through open displays of aggressive strength. The behaviour of the police and security services suggests they think along similar lines.

As a reader it took some time to engage with the tale being told. The incremental plot progression is cushioned by lengthy sections of dialogue. These conversations are the beating heart of a story whose aim appears to be to increase understanding of Muslim attitudes and resentments in Britain. There are misapprehensions on both sides. What is offered is nuances to counter the broad brush strokes more widely reported.

The young Muslim men observe the white people they regard as oppressors. They decry the drinking and gambling just as the white people they encounter decry their insistence on halal meat and proscribed attire. Ishaq recounts overhearing elderly neighbours share a moment of tenderness commenting that he had, up until this point, been unaware that white families were capable of being like this together – that they could ever act as his family did.

What comes to the fore is how little either side understands the other. The Islamic community preaches peace and patience yet there is so much anger boiling over at each provocation. The men on both sides resort to violence to protect what they regard as their innate rights. The white people demand assimilation while the Muslim community wish to be left to live according to their beliefs. Within each side are the few whose arguments are fuelled by hate.

The immigrant parents, who moved to Britain for a better way of life, berate their children for not making more of the opportunities thereby offered. The children berate their parents for not understanding how frustrated they feel at being treated as a threat by a white community granted the power to subjugate. Frustration, fear and aggression build to confrontations that, inevitably, spiral out of control.

Misunderstood prejudices explored include: traditional attire, including the head coverings worn by some Muslim women; FGM; the treatment of child abusers; arranged marriage. I would have liked more prominence given to female characters but this is a story of young men fighting for a place in the world they believe they deserve. Ishaq is torn between demands for loyalty to those he has grown up with, and the chance of a better way but only for himself.

This is a carefully crafted story on the reality of living as a Muslim man in working class Britain. The tinder of cultural and political persecution, enacted in the name of national security, builds dangerously in a community whose choices are limited by racial discrimination. The schisms created by interpretations of religious teachings add a volatile flame.

A story that works to provide a fair representation of both sides of a serious contemporary issue. This was an eye-opening, searingly relevant read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink

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Book Review: Normal People

Normal People, by Sally Rooney, is a refreshingly linear story set between January 2011 and February 2015. It has two protagonists, Connell and Marianne, who get together during their final year at school. Connell is popular, sporty and intelligent, enjoying his place within his wide circle of friends. Marianne is bullied and derided, a loner who somehow copes as her homelife is worse. They agree to keep their burgeoning relationship secret. Connell does not wish to lose his social standing by association.

The ebb and flow of these two young people’s love affair is explored in forensic detail over the years. The setting moves from their hometown of Carricklea in Galway to the city of Dublin where they attend a prestigious university. Here the affluence of Marianne’s family offers her a stepping stone to acceptance. Connell feels out of place and almost friendless, unmoored by his change of circumstances. Both had hopes of escape and reinvention. The realities of changing a personality prove hard to sustain.

Marianne’s simmering hurts manifest in ways that appall Connell at a time when he has found a degree of peace elsewhere. When a mutual friend is found dead the importance ascribed to seemingly significant decisions is brought into relief. Each is questioning their recent past and where they can go next.

Through the years the two friends come together and drift apart, their confidences and social circles changing. The story is an exploration of intimacy, influence and the causes of dissonance. Marianne expresses a wish to be normal but cannot shed the demons of her upbringing. The supporting cast of characters demonstrate differing perceptions and what normal means.

The writing is honest in its portrayal of university students with their shallow convictions and closely guarded fears. Marianne and Connell may have something special between them, including a rare ability to discuss emotions, but they are still individuals and not mind readers. There are passions and jealousies, ambitions that they dare not articulate for fear of ridicule.

A novel that shivers with the traumas caused by the experience of living. A meticulous and compelling rendering of love and its shade.

Normal People is published by Faber & Faber

Book Review: Chains

Chains: Unheard Voices is an anthology of eleven short stories. It is the first offering from a new independent publisher whose stated aim is:

“to empower writers who have been pushed to the margins by the mainstream”

The tales included here are challenging, poignant, and at times disturbing. The diverse range of voices are quietly resonant.

The collection opens with Epilogue in which a family are trying to cope with an attempted suicide. Although lacking somewhat in depth, the prejudices and concerns of those trying to make sense of what has happened shine through.

Incubus explores the impact of dementia, death, and the effects of illness on the aspirations of a teenager. An inexplicable visitor helps put potential futures in perspective.

There are stories set in the past, present and the future. The impact of bullying, of both adults and children, is approached from differing perspectives, as are prejudices against single mothers and those living in poverty.

Crawl is a particularly powerful piece with its twisted take on foodbanks and the way donors respond to their own supposed beneficence, how they are encouraged to treat those they feed.

Several stories deal with alleged terrorists and miscreants. There are depictions of attempts to dehumanise and the effect on victims. The rule of law is accorded little respect.

Anchor is a chilling tale of the warped outlook of a domestic abuse survivor. They have not perhaps survived in any meaningful sense.

In amongst these challenging subjects is the delightful Help, My Dog Is Isaac Newton which takes a playful look at reincarnation from the point of view of an elderly widower. I enjoyed the protagonists observations on and attitudes to the recent influx of Hindu neighbours.

The final story, Identity, offers a window into the cost of fighting for woman’s suffrage. This follows a tale set in a tinderbox township on the eve of elections. The dangers to women living in different ages yet willing to fight for what they believe in is sobering.

The writing in these stories is fresh and varied, the subjects worth pondering. I have read stronger voices elsewhere, but these deserve to be heard.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, MargŌ Collective. 

Book Review: Little

Little, by Edward Carey, tells the story of Anne Marie Grosholtz, born prematurely in a remote Swiss village in 1761, who would one day become known as Madame Tussaud. Marie’s father was a soldier so she was raised by her mother, moving to Berne when she was six years old. Here she learns the art of modelling with wax from their employer, Doctor Phillipe Curtius. Curtius works for the local hospital creating models from body parts that are used to instruct trainee physicians. Growing depressed by his contact with the dead he branches out, much to the ire of his boss.

Curtius comes to the attention of a French writer, Louis-Sébastien Mercier, who suggests the young doctor would find greater appreciation of his skills in Paris. When Curtius is threatened with penury, an attempt to rein him in, he decides to heed this advice. Packing his tools and belongings, including Marie who is now his de facto assistant, he heads into the unknown.

Mercier helps Curtius to find lodgings, suggesting he take rooms with a widow, Charlotte Picot, and her son, Edmond. Widow Picot takes an instant dislike to Marie but accepts her as a house servant so long as she does exactly as she is told. It is the start of a difficult relationship that will enable the widow to prosper by taking full advantage of her power over Curtius. Marie has no choice but to acquiesce if she is to survive.

Picot may be grasping but she has good business sense. The wax faces and figures Curtius makes prove popular and draw a crowd. This includes the young sister of the king and her entourage. The royal visit leads to a change of circumstances for Marie who ends up serving for a time in the Palace of Versailles. When eventually she is forced to leave, it breaks her heart yet proves fortuitous, for soon there are the rumblings of revolution.

Much of note is included within the pages of this book: the medical practices of the eighteenth century; life in Paris when it was a walled and gated city containing mostly wooden buildings; the now famous people who passed through Paris at this time; a first person account of life as a servant within the French Royal Court during the reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette; the personal vendettas and tragedies that those trying to live quietly during a revolution suffer. Marie’s changing situation highlights the precarious life and lack of agency endured by a young woman effectively owned by her employer.

This is truly remarkable story. A fictionalised account but based around known facts. The voice created for Marie is perfectly balanced and paced for storytelling. There is a pleasing lack of hyperbole although deep emotions are evoked. It is, quite simply, a darn good read. A contender for my book of the year.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Gallic Books

 

Click on the image above to look inside Little

 

Book Review: Paris Echo

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Who cares about history?”
“We weren’t remembering it anyway. We hadn’t been there – neither had our teachers, nor anyone else in the world – so we couldn’t remember it. What we were doing was imagining it…”

The ideas at the heart of the Age of Enlightenment spread across Europe in the eighteenth century and are credited with inspiring the French Revolution. Paris became a centre of culture and growth that welcomed artists, philosophers, and also an influx of migrant workers. The twentieth century brought further war and division with violent conflict between Jews, Muslims and Christians. Internalised hatred between neighbours was unleashed.

Paris Echo opens in contemporary times. It offers a view of the history of the city from the contrasting perspectives of two recent migrants.

Tariq is a nineteen year old raised in Tangier, a shallow narcissist who cannot look at a female without undressing her in his mind. He is studying economics at college, a route to a better life in his father’s eyes. He has little interest in world affairs but is frustrated with his current life. He decides to escape to Paris where his late mother was born and raised. A non-practising Muslim, Tariq hopes to meet Christian girls who, unlike his female friends at home, behave as he has watched on American TV.

Hannah is an American postdoc researcher returning to Paris after a decade. Her previous visit left her emotionally scarred but, as a historian, the city offers professional opportunities she is eager to utilise. Hannah’s association with Tariq is somewhat contrived but enables the author to construct a story from the points of view of the jaded academic and the naive young man.

“You couldn’t know everything […] there were only degrees of ignorance.”

Tariq secures a low paid job in a food outlet and, once he has landed decent accommodation (however unlikely this may appear), enjoys exploring the city. We see it through his eyes, especially the contrasts with his homeland. He encounters figures from the past and is intrigued. The timeframes are at times inexplicably fluid, history presented as pageant. Tariq’s story is a coming of age.

“This was, so far as I knew, my first attempt at living on this planet and I was making the whole thing up as I went along.”

Hannah spends her days researching the experiences of ordinary women during the German occupation of the Second World War. She listens to recorded accounts of their lives at the time, commenting:

“contemporary witnesses seemed unaware of the meaning of what they’d lived through”

This opinion, that it is historians who ascribe importance, suggests a lack of understanding of the impact of events on individuals and how each must somehow find a way to live with challenging memories.

“this will never, ever go away. Not until every last person who lived through it is dead.”

Hannah meets regularly with an English colleague she knew from her last visit to the city. He grows concerned at the impact the women’s testimonies are having on his friend as her empathy develops. Tariq, for all his insular concerns, can see more clearly yet is not taken seriously. Hannah continues to regard him as he was when they first met.

One of Tariq’s co-workers hates the French for what they did to the Algerians during their battle for independence. Tariq’s lack of knowledge of historical events in Paris and the ripples these caused through time is gradually remedied.

“What, really, is the difference between the commemoration of an atrocity and the perpetuation of a grievance?”

The story is engaging and fluently written with some interesting insights into the conceits of intellectuals and how differing cultures disseminate history. Both Hannah and Tariq become more aware, especially of themselves. Paris, the sense of place, is appealingly presented.

Any Cop?: Although a pleasant enough read this book did not have the powerful impact of Birdsong or Engleby. I would say it is more akin to Charlotte GrayOn Green Dolphin Street or A Week in December. That it mostly avoids character clichés is a notable strength. Despite the occasional structural flaw it offers thoughtful perspectives.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Groundsmen

The Groundsmen, by Lynn Buckle, is a brutal and disturbing story about an Irish family caught up in a generational cycle of abuse. It is told from five points of view. The protagonists are all victims of a community unwilling to confront the actions of those living within their midst. Dark secrets fester but are kept.

Louis is a successful IT manager who moved his wife, Cally, and their daughters, Andi and Cassie, to the newly built suburbs of Dublin before the Celtic Tiger economy collapsed. Now Cally spends much of her day in bed. Teenaged Andi resents that she is left to look out for her little sister. Five year old Cassie copes with the familial disharmony by pretending to be a dog, burying objects that represent hurtful behaviours in the garden. Louis’s brother, Toby, is a regular visitor. Louis and Toby have always been close but the truth of their relationship is toxic.

The story opens on a typical weekend. Louis and Toby are getting drunk watching football on TV, internally fantasising about what they would do to women they know. The violent degradation inherent in their thoughts is sickening to consider.

Cassie is in the garden burying the remote control. Andi is checking the personal treasures she hides in her wardrobe.

Cally has escaped upstairs and is thinking with disgust of what her husband has become – the rank smell and diseased skin that he regularly forces on her.

When Cassie becomes too lively inside the house she is punished. She copes with the pain by going elsewhere in her mind, thinking of all the items on her childish want list. Her family cannot understand that much of her behaviour is a cry for love, regarding her as weird and a nuisance.

Andi seeks love on line, posting photographs of herself at the behest of a boy. Toby has noticed how his niece’s body is developing.

The following Monday Louis oversleeps making him late into work. On arrival he discovers that Toby has been sacked. Inappropriate images were observed on his computer. There is to be an investigation. Louis struggles to make sense of what he is being told. As the story progresses the reader comes to understand that these adults operate in a state of denial about consequences. Damaging behaviours have led to a spiral of sordid desires which they refuse to acknowledge.

Louis regards women as objects available for his pleasure, resenting any agency they acquire. Cally recognises that she should act to protect her children but, inured to a life of submission, is overwhelmed. Louis will do whatever it takes to hold onto what he believes is his by right. Toby has his own agenda.

The subject matter and detail made this a challenging story to read. The author remains resolute in portraying the extent of the degeneracy and wider culpability. This is savage social realism, the twitching net curtain torn asunder. It is searing in its plausibility.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher époque press.

Book Review: The Plankton Collector

“That picture […] will be amongst the snaps which she keeps all her life in the old chocolate box, the captured iconic moments of seaside holidays, made happy by a trick of memory”

The Plankton Collector, by Cath Barton, tells the story of a family struggling to cope in the wake of a death. Rose and David live in comfortable surroundings with their three children but their marriage is not a happy one. Each believes that, over the years, they have given the other what was expected and required, yet neither feels fulfilled. When their elder son, Edgar, dies following an illness they and the boy’s siblings each retreat into individual, dark shells.

Ten year old Mary seeks solace in books, escaping from her home when she can, now that Mother is always crying. On a day like any other she meets a stranger who, despite warnings to the contrary, she knows she can trust. He takes her to the seaside where she plays with a new companion. The episode is surreal, inexplicable, yet remains as a comforting memory.

Rose’s memories from her younger days bring her little comfort. She believes she was happy once, before she lost her best friend. Now she has lost a child and fears her husband is increasing the distance between them. A stranger she meets as she tends her son’s grave takes her on a journey that reminds her she must work on the small things so as not to be defeated by the bigger picture.

Twelve year old Bunny meets the stranger in a den he used to spend time in with Edgar. Bunny finds he can talk almost freely about many issues that have been bothering him, although not about his father. The man understands and knows to bide his time.

David is troubled by his recent behaviour yet unsure how to extricate himself. To help him the stranger, in the form of a rich uncle, offers to take the children away for a week’s holiday. Left to themselves Rose and David can talk about their growing rift.

The stranger is the Plankton Collector, although to each he goes by a different name. He appears when most needed. The journeys he takes with each family member are as real as they need them to be.

In haunting, exquisite prose the author explores the disconnects that exist within families as each deals with the internal difficulties inherent in life as it progresses. Moments of happiness can be overshadowed by loss, yet it is the former that should be granted attention and treasured.

In this short novella a world has been conjured that recognises the depths of unhappiness yet offers hope. It reminds that reactions when grieving are neither uniform nor prescriptive, but that individuals, once known, are never entirely lost.

‘You will remember this place,’ he continued, ‘and you will always be able to come back to it in your minds. No-one can take your happy memories away from you.’

 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, New Welsh Rarebyte.