The Registrar's Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages, By Sophie Hardach

Love, honour, and a tangle of red tape
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The Independent Culture

The first sentence of this confident novel is characteristically bold and to the point. "Selim's first view of Europe," it reads, "was a vast, thick carpet of shit."

The opening chapter sees Kurdish Selim swim ashore in southern Italy, help to bury his neighbour's dead child, rattle in a tomato truck across Switzerland and crash land in a German asylum centre with no luggage, three passports and a made- up date of birth. All this by page eight, when Selim is still only 13.

If Selim is the object of the story, then the subject is the nameless narrator who picks up the story in Paris, 15 years later. She works as a junior civil servant in a registrar's office, and is concerned about a young bride whom she has been asked to marry. "My street was one of those bourgeois-bohemian favourites," she relates. "You know the type: a burqa shop at one end, a sex shop at the other." She's a worldly thirty-something cocooned in bureaucracy and trapped between the "Kurdish women's rights" line, her own conscience and a new pamphlet, "The Registrar's Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages". She starts to recall her own seven-year marriage, made when she was a teenage anarchist living in Germany and willing to help a skinny, teenaged Kurdish boy whom she had barely met.

This is Hardach's first novel (one of the "Waterstone's 11" fiction debuts to look out for), but the young author has lived in several continents, speaks six languages and has worked as a correspondent for Reuters, which perhaps explains her sassy, international edge and her flair for playing with language. Selim, for instance, thinks that German vowels are "just padding to prevent the consonants from rattling". But she also highlights the gaps where the truth slips between words. Some of Selim's experiences in his homeland we hear about from a distanced, omniscient narrator, but others we only hear from him. Even the reader doesn't know quite how much of Selim's story is true.

While the novel has much to say about nationhood, belonging, gratitude, French hairstyles and weary bureaucracy (and is serendipitously pithy about student demos and the niqab), it is also about family and duty and, most of all, marriage. How can anyone tell how willingly another person enters that contract? "They all hesitated that fraction of a second after they picked up the pen, before they placed the nib on the paper," she writes. "I was sure no one else noticed it. They probably didn't even notice it themselves. But I, I noticed it always...".