Picador, £12.99, 312pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Ours Are The Streets, By Sunjeev Sahota
Friday 07 January 2011
Ilook in American eyes/ I see little life/ See little wife/ He's striking violence up in me....I'm pulling out the pin/ Oh, I pull out, pull out the pin." So sang Kate Bush in 1982 about the final reflections of a suicide bomber. These days, artists who have dared to depict the inner life of modern-day martyrs – invariably Islamic radicals preparing to die in the West – have done so in a satirical register rather than an earnest one, perhaps because it is safer. Chris Morris'a film Four Lions was commended for its levity, while Sebastian Faulks adopted a tenderly comic note in his portrait of Hassan, a Private Eye-reading son of a pickle magnate in A Week in December.
Sunjeev Sahota's debut novel, by contrast, approaches the subject with Bush's serious-minded intensity. Sahota's jihadi has decided to blow himself up in a shopping centre in Sheffield. But before he carries out the plan, Imtiaz Raina, a previously secularised British Pakistani, begins a journal for his wife and child for posthumous reading. It becomes his confession as well as a therapeutic crutch as he prepares for martyrdom: "When I'm writing this it's like I'm rummaging around inside myself, and I can just keep on rummaging until I find something that's not far off what it really is I want to say."
Narrated exclusively by Imtiaz, the tone shifts from mournful (his father has recently died), to lyrical (especially in the passion he feels for his wife, Rebekah, a white convert) to delusional (he thinks he is being followed; he doubts his wife's fidelity; he sees people who, Sahota implies, are not there).
As his paranoia grows, so the reader begins to suspect that his reality is skewed. So scrambled is his mind in the last part of the book that the story appears to become one of psychopathology and emotional meltdown, rather than one of religious fanaticism. The unreliable narration bears a passing likeness to Patrick Bateman's in American Psycho, though the result here is not as dynamic. Whereas Bret Easton Ellis brought the narrative to a tipping-point, when it dawned on the reader that Bateman's version of events could be unadulterated fantasy, there is no such penny dropping here. The narrative instability is a clever idea but might have been better developed in the hands of a more experienced writer.
Yet there is ambition in the book that does pay off. Imtiaz's journey to Pakistan, and his sense of belonging, gives the novel much of its eloquence. "Standing at his father's funeral, he says: "I felt really solid, rooted to my earth. I felt magnificent." It is in this trip back to bury his father that his radicalisation occurs and his outrage at the atrocities committed against fellow Muslims bleeds into the strong emotions attached to bereavement. He feels anger over the humiliations his father suffered in life and this anger extends itself to humiliations suffered by the Ummah (Muslim community).
Sahota's subject matter is a topical one, ever more so given the recent flurry of news reports, from Luton's link to the Stockholm bomber to the arrest of British Bangladeshi terror suspects. So it is refreshing that while Imtiaz is politicised, the book never takes on the angry, pedagogic tone of a newspaper column. It is a sad, nuanced, psychological meditation of the road to a fanaticism that resembles mental disorder. What is also evident is Sahota's ability to write lyrically, and with great literary promise.
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