Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Taking the literary huff - and a book to justify it

A couple of weeks ago I found myself dismally entrenched in the depths of the foulest mood to descend upon me for quite some time. Those who know me will testify that this must have been a sight to behold - behold, that is, for mere miliseconds before scarpering, sharpish, if experience was anything to go by: other people don't fare well in my company when I've got the huff. Nine times out of ten, it's something utterly banal which causes the storm clouds, such as arriving home late from work to a kitchen full of dirty dishes (or worse, a dishwasher full of clean ones) but on the evening in question, I had a much more literary grievance.

A little bit of background narrative, if you can stomach it: as a young, highly strung and admittedly slightly odd outcast bookworm with an English accent growing up on the feral west coast of Scotland, I believe my parents used to Worry About Me. Not because of my stubborn reluctance and/or inability to pander to the whim of the popular boys and girls and therefore the inevitable torrent of spit-wads I used to get in the back of the neck on the school bus home, rather I think they probably thought I spent too much time on my own, shut away in my sanctuary with my Doors CDs and the heating on. But then, if I was looking at hanging out with the prehistoric spit-wad kids as an alternative, who would blame me?

Social ineptitude aside, most of the time I wasn't actually on my own up there - chances are I had my "head in a book" - and if my head was in there, then the rest of me was as well. If they thought I was taciturn, reticent and - dare I say it - grumpy, it was probably because I'd been forced to abandon my quest to the North to discover the meaning of Dust, rescue the Gyptian kids and reinstate the true leader of the armoured bears, to be called downstairs for something as inconsequential as dinner where I was abruptly shunted back into the family pecking order. Worse, though, was when I actually finished whatever I was reading before tea, because then it was as if somebody had died. I was grieving. I didn't want to talk about it:

"What have you been up to up there in your little cave?"

"Nothinggg, Muuum!"

And I didn't want to dodge my brother's whip-crack tea towel manoeuvres. I just wanted to be left in peace to wallow in the fleeting but intense sense of loss I'd suffered - after all, I'd bested the cunning Mrs Coulter with these people, my new friends (shame you couldn't make any real ones, I hear you snicker), traversed a twinkling bridge to a city in the sky with my Daemon - and now, suddenly, brutally, they were gone. (For the purposes of my argument, let's just ignore the fact that the example story is part one of a trilogy).

Don't worry, patient reader, this long-winded tale is approaching something along the lines of The Point. Recently, I suffered a terrible loss, and it shook me up so badly that I was incapable of sensible interaction for a good couple of hours. I was in such a huff after turning the final page at having to leave it all behind that all I could do was frown, gnash my teeth and grunt monosyllabically at any who dared to cross my path. What master storyteller could have produced such a tome? Well, joking aside - seriously - please, go out now and buy Ours Are The Streets by Sunjeev Sahota and read it, and when you're finished, if you can bear to part with it, give it to all of your friends.

Before I read this novel, I'd had a little bout of reader's block. Nothing stuck; everything was lacklustre. Either that, or I'd tried to take things on that were too ambitious (like W G Sebald's Austerlitz whilst lying incapacitated with what I retrospectively suspect was swine flu). I felt parched, desperately in need of refreshment, but a few things put me off before I'd even started. Aesthetically, it's eye-catching, but not particularly pleasing or easy. It's jagged, grabs you, with its dirty brown cover, large gashes of red Arabic script, streaks of ragged black type and vaguely threatening yet elusive teasers daubed into the background in harsh white. Inside, as well, the largish point Times New Roman typeface looks kind of haphazard and unfinished. Call me shallow, but I judge a book by its cover and for all these reasons I expected something less than what was delivered. I also found the title vaguely repellent with, it seemed to me, its suggestion of exaggerated hipness, its allusion to modern times. Looking closer, though, the sludgy background of the paperback jacket interestingly reveals an urban vista nestled behind the lettering which is so clearly shot that you feel like you should recognise it, even though you know you don't...

So in I dove, more out of a sense of duty for reading our list than anything else, and contrary to my expectations I was caught, hook, line and sinker before fifty pages (for the bibliophobes among you for whom fifty pages sounds like a lot to read before you know whether you like a book or not, it's not - good stories are woven with care, precision and patient thought). And Sahota plays the long game. He starts at the end and takes us all the way back to the very beginning, filling in all the blanks of this extraordinary story in a spartan, raw prose written in colloquial Sheffield dialect - at first this was midly irritating, then bemusing, and finally indispensable - it's exciting to realise how necessary this kind of detail is in creating plausible, believable characters - likeable, even. Sahota is truly a magician; on our turbulent cultural and political stage, I never imagined a writer would possess the power to draw me in to the (albeit literary) mind of a Muslim jihadist and make me like him.

Inflammatory subject matter for the sake of it is something that really disgusts me, particularly if it's overtly topical, which is why I was delightfully surprised to find that nothing in this story is there gratuitously or simply to shock. As all the best ones are, it's really a love story. Or rather, a story about love - its delights, surprises, pitfalls, failures and, finally, destructiveness. Family love is there as well - the painful bonds of love and loathing between father and son, set against the backdrop of English immigrant culture (first and second generation), which somehow mutate into a dreadful, destructive need to find some kind of nook to feel safe in, no matter how crooked. And then, as well, the whole thing is an introduction into what is still for me an alien culture - in the form of a trip 'home' to Pakistan, where English-born Imtiaz is supposed to feel like he belongs but really spends most of his time trying to prove to the others that he's worthy of their regard, as a foreigner. Just like anyone, he's desperate to belong in the group, and he'll go to quite some lengths. His drifting into a more dangerous kind of religious fervour is a barely perceptible shift (you only twig when he returns to 'Sheff' and his young wife is shocked and recoils at his kurta and beard). You realise that you've been drawn into it, too - the streets of Sheffield seem grey and bleak next to the richness and warmth of the family home in Pakistan. Even though Imtiaz plays an important role in the terrible, terrible things which happen there (which, when you step back and observe are so foreign and frightening that it gives you a shock), somehow there is a sense of unity in it all; his family, his friends, their shared experiences - until again, with a shock, you realise what they are all intending to do together.

(Warning, spoilers!)

Finally, Sahota maps a psychological demise that is tragic, because you've come to love and pity this man, even though you know he's going to become a killer. And the conclusion becomes terribly, sadly inevitable, for Imtiaz more than for anyone else - that's the persuasive power of the narrative perspective. But Sahota, with his master pen stroke, retains such control, resisting veering into the sensationalist, and instead finishing on a profoundly calm and touching note - quite at odds with the reality you know might have just exploded in an oblivious, crowded place somewhere.

The rather grating tagline of this novel reads 'the story behind the news story'. I found this at first too mass-market, too attention-grabbing, too cloying. But this novel really does fill in the blanks missing from those people whose grainy pictures we look at in the paper and think that there can only ever be evil there. How can a human being think of destroying themselves and others so deliberately and hatefully, you ask yourself when you look at those faces. This novel is fiction, but it engages an obscure part of your imagination, as if flexing muscles you didn't know were there, and for the first time goes some way towards providing a shade of an answer.