This book was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize and recently appeared on the longlist of the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction. I understand why it was so honoured.
Isma Pasha, a Pakistani-Brit, goes to the United States to work on a PhD, leaving behind her siblings in London. Nineteen-year-old Aneeka is studying law but her twin brother Parvaiz ends up recruited by ISIS. Shortly after leaving the country to join the terrorist group, he realizes he has made a mistake and wants to come home. Though the British home secretary, Karamat Lone, has revoked the citizenship of all nationals who have left Britain to join a terrorist group, Aneeka sets out to bring home her brother, even starting a relationship with Eamonn Lone, the son of the British home secretary.
The book is divided into five sections; each gives the point of view of a different character: Isma, Eamonn, Parvaiz, Aneeka, and Karamat. This structure allows the reader to get to know each of the main characters and to understand his/her motives.
The book examines the difficulties of being a Muslim in a hostile world. Isma knows not to pack a Quran and is not surprised to be interrogated for nearly two hours before her flight to the U.S.: “[The interrogating officer] wanted to know her thoughts on Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, The Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites.” Aneeka’s cousin in Pakistan outlines the tenuous situation of Muslims: “’My sister lives in America, she’s about to have a child there – did you or your bhenchod brother stop to think about those of us with passports that look like toilet paper to the rest of the world who spend our whole lives being so careful we don’t give anyone a reason to reject our visa application? Don’t stand next to this guy, don’t follow that guy on Twitter, don’t download that Noam Chomsky book. And then your brother uses us as a cover to join some psycho killers . . . ’” Of course, the Pasha family’s lives are complicated by the fact that their father was a jihadist.
Parvaiz’s drift towards ISIS is well-depicted. He is a young man haunted by the memory of the father he never really knew. Adil Pasha, who had fought in Kashmir, Chechnya, Kosovo and Afghanistan, died enroute to Guantánamo after being tortured in an internment facility in Bagram, Afghanistan. His father was never mentioned in his home: “secrecy had lived inside the house too. His mother and Isma both carried an anger toward Adil Pasha too immense for words.” Adil’s reputation as a fighter is used to lure Parvaiz into the group; one of the reasons he joins is that he is promised he will be able to meet men who knew his father. Parvaiz is not demonized; he is portrayed as a misguided youth whose life seems rather aimless and who falls prey to an experienced recruiter.
Sympathy is aroused for each of the characters. Each makes some questionable choices but for perfectly understandable reasons. A sister informs authorities of her brother’s joining terrorists which she views as “enemies of both Britain and Islam” but in so doing she can be seen as disloyal to her family. A politician focuses on the country’s security by not allowing the return of would-be terrorists, but he turns his back on his background and faith. Characters are put in positions where they must answer, “What would you stop at to help the people you love most?” Complex issues are examined and the solutions are not easy.
There are scenes in this novel which are anything but forgettable, the conclusion being the most memorable. It has been pointed out that the book is a contemporary re-imagining of Sophocles’ Antigone; the author quotes the play in her epigraph: “The ones we love . . . are enemies of the state.” A knowledge of the Greek tragedy, however, is not required. The book will not leave the reader unaffected.