Turnaround Books, £16.99, 388pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Pure, By Timothy Mo

 

Just past the halfway mark in Timothy Mo's seventh novel, his heroine – a strapping Bangkok ladyboy who has joined a company of bloodthirsty Islamist warriors – wanders through a serene orchard on an island close to Singapore. Snooky's jihadi platoon (sanook = fun in Thai) has halted for a brief rest en route to help the insurgent Moros of the Philippines as fellow holy warriors. She (and for all the unwanted testosterone that jungle warfare brings, Snooky's chosen pronoun never wavers) samples the fruit of the ebony tree. It is not dark and dense like the wood, but pale, delicate and enigmatic: "tart and sweet in the same mouthful, soft but crunchy... If marzipan dormice grew on trees... they would taste like this". If this moment smacks of Eden, and forbidden fruit, it also helps initiate Snooky into the mysteries of the jihadi pursuit, where darkness yields to light, stark contradictions resolve themselves, and chaste perfection grows from the crooked timber of humanity.

For any major novelist to write the modern jihad from inside takes balls (which this heroine, in every sense, never lacks). But to make our first-person guide to the lofty idealism and flint-hearted cruelty that fuse in the zealots' mission a street-smart, razor-tongued Thai katoey calls on a degree of chutzpah that limits the field to just about one. Mo brings all his audacity and exuberance – frivolity, even – to one of the grimmest topics in our cultural lexicon. If Chris Morris's holy-war burlesque in Four Lions comes to mind, so do the baroque battlefield tragi-comedies of a Heller or a Waugh.

In the late 1980s, Mo broadened his range from poised Anglo-Chinese fictions such as Sour Sweet. After his Hong Kong historical novel, An Insular Possession, came an epic of guerrilla war in East Timor, The Redundancy of Courage. Then he went AWOL. Based in his native Hong Kong, Mo turned his back on the UK book machine and became a DIY self-publisher. He followed the on-off satire of Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard with the rumbustious – and mesmerising - Filipino picaresque of Renegade or Halo2.

In Pure, an equally virtuosic HD performance, the knife-sharp but surgery-free Snooky has - courtesy of her English-language education - picked up a job as a film critic in Bangkok: a neat cover for Mo's cinema-buff riffs. Then a catastrophic drugs bust leaves her with Hobson's choice, delivered by a slimy Old Etonian top cop: 20 years in the Bangkok slammer, or a trip to her home turf in the disaffected Muslim south of Thailand to spy on old schoolfriends. They have enlisted in a religious school - the pondok - as camouflage for the local "boutique jihad". Since 2004, the insurgency in three of Thailand's Muslim provinces has cost more than 4500 lives; 16 died in attacks in Yala on 31 March.

Back among her own folk, who have "nothing, nix, in common with the Buddhist North", Snooky to some degree reverts to type. Although her masculine mask as the reformed "Ahmed" strikes her (and us) as skin- or beard-deep, the undercover agent finds herself becoming a Muslim again. Love, chaste and modest (quite a novelty for Snooky), does the trick: first for former school pal Jefri, now the purest of the pure, and then for their chief Shaykh, who enjoys his own passages of first-person narration.

This dashingly stern and severe warrior from Pakistan dreams of a new "Caliphate" that will stretch across South-east Asia. His upright devotion to the "purifying fire" of jihad blends his dad's Raj-era Indian Army ethos with a mathematical bent refined at Sheffield University. Shaykh despises the woolly way of thinking of "a Arts", with its blasphemous trap-door paradoxes, nuances and ironies (much like the book we are reading). His God is an abstraction grasped in "algebraic equations". And the formula for the Caliphate requires pharmaceutical doses of "anti-biotic violence". The group's attack on a disco in Phuket leaves 203 casualties. This carnage leaves Snooky feeling "scrubbed and alive... alive and clean".

Do we believe her? Not quite, for all that a doom-laden diagnosis has deepened her fatalism. Mo's problem, as Snooky joins the Band of Brothers (even Shaykh enjoys that Spielberg mini-series on DVD) in the Philippines, is that she never forsakes the spiritual glad-rags of the Bangkok movie theatre and night-club. Trying to act as godly "Ahmed" will always prove the biggest drag of all. And, as a storyteller, Mo prefers sanook to solemnity. So her adventures purchase terrific gusto and brio at some cost to credibility. Snooky, even as she hails a glimpse of mystic unity with fellow-soldiers as "the eye of my life", still mounts bizarre game-shows on video with hapless Western hostages – overwrought scenes, grotesquely mingling Swift and Tarantino.

We hear from another narrator: also a fervent idealist, although in a suave liberal-Anglican vein. Victor Veridian, Oxford historian, priest and veteran MI6 asset, comes out of retirement to "run" Snooky as an agent. Cue a delightful mimicry of the crusty donnish spook in the SCR, as gorgeously fashioned as all of Mo's voices and - it has to be said - as unstoppably garrulous as well. What does work a treat is this odd couple's internet fencing, as Snooky goes native among the jihadis. The web-mediated stand-off between this pair of feline sophisticates – comrades in camp, if nothing else - injects some salty to-and-fro into a novel that rests too often on dazzlingly single-minded monologue.

Shaykh has striven to make the world of his imaginary Caliphate "less complex", like a theorem from Euclid. Snooky yearns to shed the human artistry and multiplicity that she (in all ways) embodies in favour of "a moment of fulfilment, chaste and decent". That dream of cleanness will delude and destroy. Pure shows us why it still attracts.

Mo has talent to burn: as much soaring imagination, blistering wit, verbal felicity, narrative velocity and sheer take-no-prisoners bravado as anyone in his generation. Since he chose to fly solo, critic-proof and editor-averse, his task has been to find the right form to fit his tumbling ideas and galloping intrigues. Pure persists in that search for an ideal frame. Like the jihadis' kingdom of God, it proves elusive. But, for any open-minded reader, the sour-sweet flavour of its outlandish fruits will season and quicken the quest.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
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.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam