I absolutely loved this book, by an author I had never heard of: Kamila Shamsie. I picked it up simply because it was on the Booker Prize long list (I’m amazed it hasn’t been shortlisted) and the blurb drew my attention. It contained a spoiler, which is annoying, as it meant I guessed what was going to happen quite early on. However, I can’t say that it really spoiled my enjoyment of this novel, which is a retelling of x and I won’t be giving too much away if I say x is a character in ancient Greek mythology, a vast and very rich seam of story-telling.
The first scene takes place in an airport where a British woman misses her plane to the US, because of a security interview. We learn that she is of Asian origin and on her way to study for a PhD in sociology at Amherst. Isma has a younger sister and brother, who are twins, and they are orphans. No one really knows what happened to her father, except that he died on the way to Guantanamo. According to Isma, he “tried his hand at many things in his life – guitarist, salesman, gambler, con man, jihadi – but he was consistent in the role of absentee father.” So absent in fact that Aneeka and Parvaiz, the twins, have no memory of him at all. Since their mother’s death, they had all been living in the same neighbourhood as Aunty Naseem, until Isma went off to study in the US.
While there, Isma strikes up an awkward friendship with Eamonn, also British, who turns out to be the son of an MP back in the UK. The story which then unfolds in a variety of locations involves a love triangle and a nearly love triangle, plenty of dramatic action and lots of heartache for all the protagonists.
I think I enjoyed this book so much because I found it to be beautifully written, full of meaningful introspection, wry dialogues, and wonderful descriptions. I loved how Kamila Shamsie infuses very British cosiness in a scene that takes place in a North American café, how she crafts the plot to reshape the ancient tale that inspired her, how there is a humour and pathos in equal measure. Above all, I love how she takes us in the mindset of a troubled young man, of a passionate young woman, of an ambitious politician, of his sweet son.
As an aside, Parvaiz is a sound engineer and collects interesting sounds. I read this book while on holiday in the Alps. I had cursed the cowbells on my first day because I found them annoying but I performed a complete U-turn the next day, when I found myself practically in the middle of a herd of cows (Ok, there was an electrical wire between me and them). I completely fell for the charm of the jangling, random, discordant yet weirdly harmonious and soothing music they made; I now think they would have been a perfect subject for Parvaiz and much nicer than what he ends up recording …