Shaheed! by Will Miller

Shaheed! by Will MillerShaheed! is a fresh and original story set around a South London estate and the young people who live there.

It begins with Jahangir. He is a fourteen-year-old returning from Pakistan, where he has been living with his uncle. They have been trying to track down Jahangir’s brother, who was kidnapped by the Taliban, and in his time there, Jahangir has learnt a lot about weapons and conflict.

Lorelei is Jahangir’s sister’s friend. She is the daughter of a Croatian single mother with a troubled past. Lorelei’s mother is beautiful and enigmatic and frightened of the man Lorelei used to think was her father. When her mother suddenly wants to take her to Dubrovnik, Lorelei doesn’t know why, or whether she wants to go.

Jahangir and Lorelei’s stories become interwoven. The novel takes in gangs, sexual violence, drugs, religion, the terrorist threat and the response of the state. It’s a heady mix. There are odd occasions where it feels a little weighed down with exposition, or where the pacing could be picked up, but on the whole it has great energy and the characters are rounded and engaging.

There’s a nice balance here between realism and adventure, drama and insight. Jahangir, Lorelei and a number of their classmates have experienced trauma that many adults cannot imagine. This has marked them, but they also behave like normal teenagers, texting, teasing, flirting. The way the humour and the darkness coincide is sensitively done by the author.

I recently picked up a popular thriller and there was a young male character who was involved with drugs and gangs in London. He felt unconvincing, like something the author had seen on TV, a scan of a photocopy of a fading Polaroid. By contrast, Shaheed! feels authentic and vital. Even though I’m not the target audience, I learnt a lot and was gripped to the end.

I received a copy of this book from the author via a Librarything member giveaway.
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Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

exit-westExit West is one of those novels that I’m still puzzling over, some time after finishing it. The author makes some interesting choices in terms of technique. So this review is really my reflections up to now rather than a settled opinion.

First, Exit West is narrated by an omniscient narrator with a cool, detached voice. This adds to the sense that the events it describes are normal, unsurprising. It tells the story of Saeed and Nadia, who live in an unnamed city in a country on the brink of civil war.

Saeed has light stubble and Nadia wears a black robe, at a time when people could still choose what to wear, ‘so these choices meant something’. They become involved and in contrast to their appearances, it is Nadia who has broken with expectations by living independently, estranged from her family, while Saeed still lives at home.

At first they do the things new couples do. They text incessantly. They use recreational drugs by moonlight. They listen to music and negotiate their attitudes to sex. But the civil war takes first their freedom and then their safety. It seems like the only option is to escape.

Saeed and Nadia leave through one of the ‘doors’ by which refugees leave war zones, generally after handing over money to traffickers. The ‘doors’ open and close apparently randomly, offering an abrupt dislocation from one place to another. It suggests something magical, without human agency, while the reality is anything but.

While Saeed and Nadia’s home city is unnamed, the events described feel contemporary and real. However the places where they go after they leave, which are named, known locations, are subtly different, as if we’re looking at a possible future or an alternate reality. They are in social upheaval, they are more segregated, even less hopeful than they are now.

Then there are vignettes throughout the book interrupting the main narrative, showing immigrants and refugees in other regions suddenly appearing through doors, as if to remind us that this is happening everywhere, all the time.

Saeed and Nadia are well realised characters, at once unique and recognisable. As they leave their home the narrative fragments and their stories become less absorbing. It is as if in becoming refugees, whose main preoccupation is survival, whose choices are circumscribed, they have less time to be psychologically complex and interesting, not only to a reader but perhaps to themselves.

So while the story didn’t engage me throughout the book, the ideas did, and still do. Exit West challenges you to think in new ways about a familiar issue, to question what you understand when you see generic terms like refugee or migrant applied to millions of individuals, who each has their home, their emotional life, their door, and has to make the decision to take that chance, or not, while they can.

I received a copy of Exit West from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Enjoyed this? For a different take on the immigrant experience, try Behold the Dreamers

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

behold-the-dreamersJende brings his wife Neni and their son to the US from Cameroon. They have high hopes for a better life. Jende is looking for a decent income, Neni wants to train as a pharmacist and to escape a society where life for a woman is circumscribed.

As Neni pursues her studies, Jende gets a great opportunity, to become a chauffeur to a senior employee at Lehman Brothers. This is 2007 so we know what is coming, but to Jende and Neni, this seems like the beginning of the life they dream of. They can save for a decent home and for Neni’s college fees. But first Jende needs to resolve his status as an illegal immigrant.

Behold the Dreamers vividly brings Jende and Neni’s worlds to life. Although most of the story takes place in the US, we get a strong sense of their life in Cameroon through their thoughts and their Cameroonian friends. We see New York through their eyes. Neni, in particular, loves the freedom and the new experiences it brings her, and has a wide circle of friends. It is only later that the different perceptions of the couple come to the fore.

The author has avoided the obvious clichés. The couple are not well off but nor are they destitute. Jende’s boss and his family are not archetypal evil capitalists. Jende is claiming refugee status even though he is not a real refugee. All these things mean that when challenging times come, there is no easy and obvious moral position for the reader to take.

Behold the Dreamers doesn’t always deliver in plot terms. It sets up a lot of things which aren’t paid off. They just happen, then something else happens. This normally bugs me in a novel (yes I know that’s how it is in real life) but here somehow it didn’t. I was enjoying the story and the characters so much I was happy to go along.

I loved the energy and humour of Behold the Dreamers and raced through it, while also wanting it not to end.

I received a copy of Behold the Dreamers from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Behold the Dreamers on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? For a different take on the immigrant experience, see my review of Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.


Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

pachinkoPachinko is a family saga and a novel about the experience of the outsider. Sunja is the daughter of Hoonie, her much-loved father who died young. Hoonie was a disabled man, which in her coastal village in Korea, means she carries a stigma and may never marry. When she becomes pregnant by a Korean from Japan, a married man, it seems she will be outcast.

Then a Korean Christian pastor comes to the family’s boarding house. Their kindness to him during an extended illness and his faith lead him to make Sunja an offer – he will marry her and bring up the child as his own if she will come to Japan with him. He is moving there to escape the poverty brought by Japanese colonialism.

His hopes for an easier life in Japan prove naïve. Sunja and her husband live with her brother and sister-in-law, Kyunghee. The two women become close. Kyunghee accepts Sunja and her pregnancy, and her charm and delicacy and Sunja’s strength and perseverance complement each other in the trials that lie ahead. Life in the Korean ghetto of Osaka is difficult but together the women survive poverty, war, repression and loss.

Sunja’s sons face different challenges. Noa and Mozasu, are both born in Japan, but they are not citizens. They are subjected to prejudice and their ambiguous status means they are never secure. But while Mozasu reacts with defiance, Noa tries ever harder to assimilate, to become more Japanese. He values Japanese ideas, culture, even the language, over Korean. His struggle is depicted with compassion and we see the compromises made by the Korean characters – and the Japanese who are close to them.

It has resonance today, when we see people from minorities taking leading roles in anti-immigrant parties or governments. This subtle depiction of Noa provides some insight into why they make what seems like an incomprehensible choice.

Another way the characters insulate themselves from prejudice is through wealth. Money doesn’t buy acceptance, but it does buy power, within certain constraints. For Sunja and her family, the support of a wealthy patron also has its price.

The writing in Pachinko is beautiful. The author creates vivid characters and evokes place from a few brushstrokes – whether it’s the remote beauty of the beach near Sunja’s village in Korea, or the frenetic desperation of the pachinko parlours (gambling arcades) of Osaka. The narration is understated, even at times of great drama, and this quiet voice somehow heightens the emotion.

Pachinko is the story of a family and survival in tough circumstances. At its heart is the strength and resourcefulness of women.

I received a copy of Pachinko from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Pachinko on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? For a different take on the immigrant experience, try Exit West by Mohsin Hamid