Arifa Akbar: A simple, enraging story that provokes action? That's a book after Orwell's own heart

The Week in Books

One of the biggest challenges for artful political writers must surely be to speak about a staggering injustice without raising their voices in anger. More difficult still to begin an exposé of a wrongdoing without the urge to rush it out to publication before the public's memory of it fuzzes into indifference. There is enough such sausage-factory publishing to prove what a selling point "timing"can be.

This is partly why AT Williams should be applauded, because he has resisted both temptations. His brilliant book A Very British Killing (Cape) is about the death of Baha Mousa, the 26-year-old Iraqi hotel receptionist who died at the hands of the British military in 2003. It was published nine years later in 2012, a year after the inquiry was closed. This week, it won the Orwell Prize for books and as one of the judges, I am immensely proud of our unanimous choice.

It is audacious to resuscitate such a high-profile news story and risky too, to dwell so singularly and minutely on a case that, however startling it was on first revelation, might be assumed to be too well-known to yield anything new.

Yet it is precisely for its near decade-in-the-making that this book is so outstanding. There is a thoughtful, quiet-voiced anger that comes from its reflection and a clarity that comes from fastidious research. It's also a thrilling read, its sentences unrushed and evocative, like a courtroom drama or detective fiction, piecing itself together.

On the face of it, it tells a simple story, dealing with one person, and one process at a time, so that everyone, not only Mousa but his heroic father Daood, the duty doctor, pathologist, padre, foot soldiers and officers who claimed no malpractice took place, are all analysed and their actions, obfuscations and cowardice made real. It also reconstructs, in unflinching detail, what terrors Mousa suffered in his final hours.

Williams, a law professor at Warwick University, says it took months to sift through the sprawling documentary evidence. "Between the Court Martial, the judicial review brought by Mousa's father, and the public inquiry presided over by Sir William Gage, tens of thousands of pages of information were made available. Unpicking the stories within these transcripts took months of analysis... Piecing together what happened, how the investigation developed and how the Court Martial collapsed was an intensive forensic exercise. But it was essential if the depth of the human tragedy... was to be understood."

The indifference to Mousa's suffering inside the Establishment was, for Williams, the most intolerable thing: "It was when I saw the post mortem photographs... that I knew I had to write the book. In the press, Baha Mousa was just a casualty. In the court cases, he was just a victim. And I thought that dishonoured the man whose death shone a light on some of the truth of the Iraq occupation."

Perhaps because we saw Mousa's image repeatedly on the news – the photo of his swollen face that vividly told the story of his endured violence – we thought injustice had already been exposed. But by the end of this book, there is the strong suggestion of endemic abuse during the occupation of Iraq. The system that sanctioned his beating to death is still intact, with its legitimised secrecy and its culture of closing ranks. We, as readers, are left with the pain of this awareness, as well as a vague sense of shame. Mousa's case "is a reminder of what being British has meant for others," Williams says.

What to do after reading it? Some might put the book away and try to forget to about it, the way you would a bad dream. Others will feel changed by the awareness. A few will channel their feelings into action. There can't be any better definition of political writing at its most excellent.

It's not funny-serious, it's just funny this time

When Howard Jacobson won the Man Booker Prize, there was debate on whether he was writing comedy or drama. Three years on, he's received a second Bollinger Wodehouse Prize for what he calls his "funniest novel". "I have rebelled in the past about being called a comic writer, because the description is limiting. But Zoo Time is intended to be a funny book, no matter that it has a serious subject." And the next one? It's "definitely not a comedy though it has comedy in it. For me, there has to be comedy in a novel, somewhere."

F Scott Fitzgerald hits the charts

Ensconced in the bestseller charts this week between Lionel Shriver and Kate Atkinson's latest fiction is a certain 'Great American novel'. The Vintage edition of The Great Gatsy, F Scott Fitzgerald's 88-year-old novel, is at number seven in the Waterstones charts (or if you count all editions, it's the fourth bestselling novel after Dan Brown, Hilary Mantel and Gillian Flynn) as well as being number 20 on the Nielson BookScan list.

 Not bad for a book that sold poorly and received mixed reviews at the height of the Jazz Age. As in the case of Dante's Inferno and its recent comeback in the poetry charts (with a helping hand, possibly, from Brown's Inferno), its success might have something to do with the Baz Luhrmann's film, although, could the fact that Fitzgerald's text fell out of copyright in 2011 have bearing on the rush to re-publish?

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

    Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
    Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

    Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

    No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
    How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

    Power of the geek Gods

    Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

    Perfect match

    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

    Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

    Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
    Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

    Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

    He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high