Monday 29 November 2021

You Don’t Know Me by Imran Mahmoud

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

“Right now you think, looking at me, that I’m just some foolish kid who go around shooting up people for now reason. I know you think that because I ain’t stupid and you ain’t stupid. […] That’s just what they want you to believe. That want you to think that I’m a no-brain lazy kid who go into some random street and shoot up a next man for nothing. […] But you have to see past all this smoke he’s been creating and see what’s behind it. Trust me you’ll be surprised.”.

The first-person voice of You Don’t Know Me leaps off the page and grabs you by the throat.

He is a young man accused of murder, with apparently overwhelming evidence stacked against him. And at the end of his trial, he has fired his barrister and elected to make his own closing speech for the defence – to tell the truth, against his lawyers’ advice.

Imran Mahmoud is himself a barrister. He knows court procedure. Yet it is hard to imagine any judge allowing the defendant the space to speak, more or less uninterrupted, for several days. The story that unfolds feels more like a modern version of the accounts once written down by the Ordinary of Newgate – the prison chaplain who recorded the last words of prisoners waiting to be hanged. But that is in no way a criticism. Suspend that element of disbelief and allow yourself to be immersed. Mahmoud’s unnamed narrator is an expert storyteller who will keep you on the edge of your seat until you are left, like the jury itself, to decide if he is telling the truth or an elaborately constructed lie.

So confident is the voice, so expert the peeling back of the layers, it is hard to believe this is a debut novel and not a master writer at the peak of his powers. If Mahmoud can keep writing like this, then he is surely destined to take Crime Fiction by storm.

A mini-series adaptation of the story is to air on the BBC in autumn 2021.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:
Amer Anwar, Dorothy Koomson

Avoid If You Dislike:
Unreliable narrators and ambiguous conclusions.

Perfect Accompaniment: Pizza from the freezer

Genre: Crime

Thursday 25 November 2021

What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad

 Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Egyptian born Canadian Journalist Omar El Akkad has taken the image of a child’s body washed up on the shores of a Greek island, and from it spun a modern fable.

Winner of this year’s Giller Award, What Strange Paradise is set on a fictionalised version of Crete, where the flora and fauna have been given a mythic quality that edges us away from realism.

The story is split into two interweaving parts.

Before tells the story of how Amir and his family flee their home, first overland to Egypt, then across the Mediterranean on an overcrowded boat, only to meet a storm when in sight of their destination.

Now the men and women who, in undertaking this passage, had shed their belonging and their roots and their safety and their place of purpose and all claim to agency over their own being, had now finally shed their future. There was nothing left of the smuggler’s apprentice to threaten, nothing he could leverage.

In After, Amir’s body is one of dozens thrown upon the shore when the ship breaks apart, but he does not die. He runs for the shelter of the woods above the beach and is found by a young girl, Vänna. She herself is the descendent of immigrants – blond, blue-eyed immigrants who came to open a hotel. Teenaged, restless, unsure of her place in the world, Vänna’s instinct is to help Amir escape from the soldiers who are sent to round up survivors and deliver them to the ex-school turned detention camp.

Neither speaks the other’s language, but slowly they find ways to communicate. As they make their way across the island, pursued by the relentless Colonel Kethros, a modern Inspector Javert determined to let no asylum seeker escape, we learn more of the horrific journey Amir has already survived – and so many others have not.

A powerful laying bare of the human tragedies behind the statistics and rhetoric surrounding asylum seekers. El Akkad’s writing has a deceptive simplicity to it. El Akkad says that he drew inspiration in part from the story of Peter Pan. It reminds me, in its construction, of books such as Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Its use of rhythm and repetition also echoes of traditions of oral storytelling.

An important, beautiful and heart-rending story.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of children in danger

Perfect Accompaniment: Salted almonds and chocolate truffles

Genre: Literary, Fable, Contemporary