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

The Week in Books

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

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?