Friday 31 July 2015

Dear Infidel by Tamim Sadikali

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Families gathering for a traditional celebration provide a familiar cauldron of emotions in which to brew up a story. But here, the setting is not Christmas or Thanksgiving, but Eid ul-Fitr, the Islamic feast that marks the end of Ramazan, the month of fasting. The place is northwest London and the time is November 2004, eighteen months into the second Iraq war and seven months before London’s 7/7 bombings.

Four cousins – two pairs of brothers who rarely see each other – assemble at the house of one of their parents. They grew up together, but adulthood has taken then in very different directions. There is Pasha, living in leafy Cheshire with his English girlfriend, disillusioned with Islam but nostalgic for the trappings of his culture. Aadam, successful enough, fond of the British, but tormented by the daily bombardment of news from the war. Nasneen, his wife, a sexually frustrated feminist in the process of rediscovering her religion. Salman, the most religious of the four men, desperate to bring his children up in a true understanding of Islam. And poor, lost Imtiaz, locked in a cage of his own making.

The story shifts between these five points of view, as well as moving back and forth between memory and the present day. It takes a few chapters to get into the rhythm of that, but each character is powerfully drawn, their perspective distinct and, before long, recognisable.

We get a taste of what it is like to be on the receiving end of endless news stories that magnify the impact of injuries to one group, while glossing over or ignoring injuries to another. But the book also celebrates the glorious amalgam that is second-generation immigrant culture. The first course of an otherwise tradition Eid dinner is leek and potato soup. An argument about Islamic dress is interrupted by a nostalgic viewing of Carry On Matron, before the cousins seize on the discovery of a favourite Bollywood film.

Sadikali does what the media has so singularly failed to do - show us shades and variations within the British Muslim community. Not between extremists and others – but within one ordinary family. The events of the previous three years have shifted their relationship, not just with the country but with their faith and, one way or another, they are still adjusting. Unsurprisingly, the novel provides no easy answers. There is no real resolution for any of them.

Sadikali says in his author’s note at the start that the best writing advice he received was to ‘make every word count.’ I’d say, in this case, he has.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Londonstani by Gautam Malkani, Psychoraag by Suhayl Saadi, The Namesake by Jumpa Lahiri .

Avoid if you don’t like: Novels that jump between different points of view, stories centred around a day of family celebration.

Ideal accompaniments: Halwa with masala chai

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

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