Thanks to NetGalley and to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing me with an ARC of this novel that I freely chose to review.
When I read in the description of this novel that it was a contemporary version of Antigone, I was intrigued. If all Greek tragedies are powerful stories, I’ve always been inclined towards those that figure female characters at their centre, and by the moral questions they pose. The author explains, in a note at the end, that the project had started as a suggestion to write a modern adaption of the play for the stage but it had ended up as a novel. Her choices on adapting the original material make it, in my opinion, very apt to the current times, whilst at the same time preserving the eternal nature of its moral and ethical questions.
I don’t think I can improve on the description of the novel that I’ve shared above, but I thought I’d offer a few more details. The story, told in the third person, is divided into five parts, each one narrated by one of the main characters of the story. First, we have Isma Pasha, the oldest sister of a Pakistani-British family. When her mother died, she sacrificed herself for her twin sibling and left her studies to support them until they were old enough to choose their own paths. She is serious, studious, hard-working, and remembers a bit more than her siblings do what it was like when her father, a Jihadist who was never home, died on his way to Guantanamo Bay. The questions, the surveillance, the suspicions, the need to be ‘beyond reproof’… When her sister Aneeka, is about to start university, and her brother, Parvaiz, is pursuing a career in sound and media studies, she accepts an offer by one of her old professors to continue her studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts. She enjoys her quiet life there and meets a young man, Eamonn, whom she recognises as the son of an important UK politician, and one that had had some dealings with her family in the past. Although from very different social classes they share some things in common (they are both from London and they have Pakistani family, although Eamonn knows very little about that side of things). Their friendship never develops into anything deeper, but it brings hope and possibility to Isma’s life.
The next part is told by Eamonn, who intrigued by a photo he’d seen of Isma’ sister, tracks her down, and despite the secrecy surrounding their relationship, falls for her.
Parvaiz’s story is that of a young man brought up among women, who is very close to his twin-sister, Aneeka, but annoyed because the women in his life make decisions without him and he has no male role-model to guide him. A chance meeting with a man who tells him he knew his father ends up in his indoctrination and eventual joining of the Caliphate.
Aneeka’s chapters talk about her grief and her determination to do what she thinks is right, no matter the price or the consequences, both to herself and to those around her. When is love too much and how far would you go for your family?
Karamat Lone, the British Home Secretary, has the two final chapters. He is of Pakistani origin but has abandoned much of his culture and identity (including his religion and his way of life) and advocates assimilation and harsh punishment for those who don’t. Like for Aneeka, for him, there can be no compromise. He repeatedly chooses politics and his official life over his family and that has terrible consequences.
Shamsie has created multi-faceted characters, all distinctive and different in the way they feel, they see the world, and they relate to others. I found Parvaiz’s story particularly effective and touching, particularly as his decision might be the most difficult to understand for many readers. He loves sounds and the way he describes everything he hears is fascinating. The story of his indoctrination and the way he ends up trapped in a situation with no way out is hard to read but totally understandable. They choose him because he is a young man, vulnerable, looking for a father figure, and easy to manipulate. He makes a terrible mistake, but like the rest of the characters, he is neither totally good nor bad. They all keep secrets, in some cases to avoid others getting hurt, in others to try and save somebody or something. At times questions are not asked so as not to shatter an illusion, and at others, even the characters themselves no longer know what the truth is. The structure of the novel allows us to see the characters from their own perspective but they also appear in the stories of the others, and that gives us a better understanding of who they really are, how they appear to the rest of the people, and of the lies they tell themselves and others.
The novel deals with a number of relevant subjects, like terrorism and counter-terrorist measures, religion, ethnic and religious profiling, social media, surveillance and state-control, popular opinion and its manipulation by the media, politics, identity, family, love (many different kinds of love), ethics and morality. Although many of these topics are always at the centre of scholarly and popular debates, now they are more pressing than ever.
This is a beautiful book, lyrical at times, full of warmth and love (family love, romantic love, love for knowledge and tradition…), but also of fear and hatred. It is passionate and raw. We might not agree with the actions and opinions of some (or even all) the characters, but at a certain level, we get to understand them. We have fathers (and most of the men, although not Eamonn) prepared to sacrifice their families and their feelings for what they think is a higher and mightier good (country, religion, politics…). We have women trying to maintain the family ties and do what is right beyond creed, country lines, written laws, and paperwork. And a clash of two versions of family, identity, and survival condemned to never reaching an agreement.
I highlighted many lines of the text (and although always in the third person, the language and the expressions of the characters are very different in each segment), and some are very long (another writer not concerned about run-on sentences at times, although they serve very clear purposes), but I decided to share just a few examples:
Always these other Londons in London.
He was nearing a mosque and crossed the street to avoid it, then crossed back so as not to be seen as trying to avoid a mosque. (This is Eamonn walking around London).
She was the portrait to his father’s Dorian Gray —all the anxiety you’d expect him to feel was manifest in her. (Eamonn thinking about his mother).
Grief was what you owed the dead for the necessary crime of living on without them. (Aneeka thinking about her brother and about grief).
This was not grief. It was rage. It was his rage, the boy who allowed himself every emotion but rage, so it was the unfamiliar part of him, that was all he was allowing her now, it was all she had left of him. She held it to her breast, she fed it, she stroked its mane, she whispered love to it under the starless sky, and sharpened her teeth on its gleaming claws.
The human-rights campaign group Liberty issued a statement to say: ‘Removing the right to have rights is a new low. Washing our hands of potential terrorists is dangerously short-sighted and statelessness is a tool of despots, not of democrats.’
He looked like opportunity tasted like hope felt like love (Anika about Eamonn).
Working class or Millionaire, Muslim or Ex-Muslim, Proud-Son-of-Migrants or anti-Migrant, Moderniser or Traditionalist? Will the real Karamat Lone please stand up? (The newspapers talking about Karamat Lone, the Home Secretary).
Who would keep vigil over his dead body, who would hold his hand in his final moments? (Karamat thinking about his mother’s death and then his own).
This is a powerful book and a novel that made me see things from a different perspective. What happens to those left behind? We are used to hearing about the families of young men and women who leave them and their country of birth to join terrorist groups. We hear of their surprise at what has happened, they seem unable to react or understand how their son, daughter, sister, brother… has become somebody they no longer understand or know. But, what must life be like for them afterwards?
There are elements that might stretch the imagination but for me, they fit within the scope of the story (it is supposed to be a tragedy, after all) and the novel treads carefully between realism and dramatic effect.
A great novel that brings to life many issues that are sometimes ignored in the political and media discourses but that are fundamental if we want to reach a better understanding of the situation. A book for people who are looking for something more than a good story and a bit of entertainment, and are prepared to ask themselves some questions. Another author I had not read yet but whom I will eagerly follow from now on.
By: Laura Marshall
Publisher: Grand Central
Publication Date: 9/5/2017
My Rating: 4 Stars
Laura Marshall delivers a twisty and suspenseful edge-of-your-seat debut, FRIEND REQUEST – when a single divorced mother gets the shock of her life when receiving a Facebook friend email request.
However, this woman happened to die twenty-five years ago, and Louise still feels the fear and guilt.
Who would guess this is a debut? Enjoyed learning of the author’s journey and her empowering story.
Louise Williams is a divorced middle class, nearly middle-aged woman. Her cheating ex-husband Sam left her for another woman.
She runs her own interior design business in London and is raising her four-year-son, Henry. Henry splits time with his two parents. Sam and Louise attended high school together. They have their secrets.
When Louise sees the name, Maria Weston, she begins to shake. A blast from the past. She can just delete the email and go to Facebook and decline the request without looking at the page.
Don’t think so. . .
A part of her wants to end this here and now, but another part of her wants to see. To know. To understand.
So she clicks, "confirm request."
Maria stares at her from behind the screen. How can Maria Weston want to be friends with her, when she is dead? More than twenty-five years.
This girl, (would be— woman) . . . "has been hovering at the edge of her consciousness for all her adult life, but she had been good at keeping her out, just a blurred shadow in the corner of her eye, almost but not quite out of sight."
From 1989 to 2016, the author takes us back to the bullying, manipulation, and the secret life of these teens and their high school years.
Presently, there is also an upcoming Sharne Bay High School Reunion for the class of 1989. Could this be a coincidence she is getting this the same day?
Who is doing this? Could Maria still be alive? She had drowned twenty-five years ago. Some thought she committed suicide.
The party. The last she was seen. Louise has a secret. Who else knows her secret?
Desperate frightened teens trying to cover their misdeeds and dark secrets. As adults, they can no longer hide.
The messages become even more threatening and dangerous. This person knows something. Louise is paranoid and fearful. Afraid her secrets of the past will unravel. She must contact the other girls.
She desperately needs to find out who is tormenting her. Louise bullied others, and now it is payback.
In between the past and present, the author cleverly inserts another voice. The reader is unsure of the voice.
A sick joke? This person is watching her. They know things. A terrible gnawing sense of dread.
“A text: “You don’t deserve to be happy. Not after what you’ve done.”
As the danger gets closer, and someone else is murdered, Louise must find the person before she is next and her son. However, the danger may be closer than she thinks.
“Maybe it’s only be going back that she will be able to move forward.”
Truth. Lies. Secrets. Family Ties. Revenge. Actions. Consequences. Choices. Sins of the past. Justifying actions.
Marshall keeps the reader in suspense and just when you think you know the identity— a new twist you did not see coming. Not a lot of likable characters; however, hats off to the author for an accomplished debut.
A riveting psychological suspense thriller which also highlights topics of bullying, peer pressure, fears, insecurities, social media, dangers of the internet, privacy, rape fantasies, BDSM, sexual violence, drugs, sadism, and darker more sinister abuse.
In addition, we learn even through generations, teenage girls, especially are desperate to fit in, willing to do or say anything to gain acceptance.
I am not a fan of Facebook. When I first started reading, was unsure if I could get past the drama; however, as the book moves on it becomes more intriguing and mysterious. A whodunit.
A good portrayal of how choices and experiences as teens can carry over to our adult lives. In addition, a nice comparison of how social media and Facebook also can affect adults as well as teens today. Anyone can be anyone on Facebook. It is easy to hide behind a faceless page. Someone lurking, watching your every move.
A solid and entertaining debut. Looking forward to seeing what’s next for this new found talented author!
A special thank you to NetGalley and Grand Central for an early reading copy.
This book is a post-apocalyptic novel set in the near future (2024 to be precise) in the UK. Although some of the specific locations are fictional, the author explains in a note at the end where the original inspiration for some of them came from, and indeed, some are real. The setting is one of the great achievements of the novel. For those of us who live in the UK, it is all too real and familiar (with the shops, facilities, political and social organisation, TV programmes, food, language, and even typical behaviours of the population) and that makes it, in many ways, scarier than novels that are set either in imaginary locations, or in vague settings, that in their attempt at representing everywhere sometimes become too unfamiliar and alienating. Another one of the things that differentiate this novel from others in the genre (and I’m aware that the author writes in many different genres and is mostly interested in the stories rather than the labels attached to them) is its attention to characters. Whilst many post-apocalyptic novels spend a lot of the time, either on the cause and the development of the said apocalypse or on descriptions of the new world and post-apocalyptic society, sometimes the characters are little more than superheroes that had not discovered yet they had special survival skills, and spend most of the novel demonstrating us their awesomeness. Although I am not an expert in post-apocalyptic novels, I have read some (the one I best remember in recent times is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel) and I’d dare to say that some readers who might not usually read novels in this genre would enjoy this one.
The time frame of the story is somewhat fragmented. The novel starts plunging us in the middle of the action, as the two main characters, Vicky and her teenage daughter Lottie, are escaping from their town and the enforced isolation and transportation its inhabitants face due to the epidemic. The novel (mostly narrated in the first person by Vicky) then goes back to explain how the situation reached the ‘tipping point’ of the title. The first person narration makes us experience the story close and personal, whilst at the same time limiting the amount of information we get to what Vicky can get hold of. Although her partner, Dex, was well-informed and had been warning her about the world governments attempts at gathering information about the population through social media with shady intent, she always dismissed his concerns and now realises he might have been right all along. (As I have included the description of the novel and want to avoid spoilers, I won’t discuss the whole plot in detail, but let’s say population control is taken to the extreme).
As I have commented more than once regarding first-person narrations, there are readers who like them more than others, and often it depends on how we feel about the narrator. I must confess that on many occasions I found Vicky very annoying, especially at the beginning of the story. She refuses to believe anything that falls outside of her comfort zone, as if she was wearing blinkers; she is uncritical of official versions of the truth, despite her partner’s attempts at enlightening her. She has little confidence in herself (even when she acknowledges that she has brought up her daughter alone and has achieved much despite her difficult circumstances), and places a lot of responsibility and trust in Dex (although she does not share his ideas or even listen to him at times), her partner for the last six years. He is a fair bit older than her, savvier, and seems to be the one who has to make the decisions and who is expected to come up with answers and solutions to all the problems. (I thought the fact that when they moved they only kept a car, and now he’s the only one to drive and she has lost confidence in her driving seems to encapsulate their relationship). Of course, we do not know him directly, as we only have Vicky’s memories of him, and we learn later those might have been rose-tinted. From the little snippets we get, I found their relationship a bit difficult to understand, as they don’t seem to have much in common (as some of the other characters note, including her daughter) and we learn that she was quite naïve about him. But she grows and matures through the novel, and although, thankfully, she does not become Wonder Woman, she proves herself resourceful and capable, she dares to try new things and does whatever is necessary to ensure her survival and that of her daughter. I am curious to see how the character will develop in the coming books and also to find out what role she will ultimately end up playing (as the narration seems to be addressed at the readers at times, rather than just being something she is writing exclusively for herself).
I really liked Lottie. She is a credible teenager, determined where her mother is hesitant, flexible and adaptable while remaining a teenager, naïve at times, eager to discover who she is and what she likes, and to fight for her individuality and independence. She brings much of the humour to the story and the relationship mother-daughter is a joy to read (apocalypse or not).
There are some chapters told in the third-person by an omniscient narrator who gets into the head of different characters, some that will evidently play a part in future instalments of the series, and others that provide a clearer background and explanation of how and why everything developed.
The writing is fluid and flows well. The first-person narration is convincing and the reported speech patterns of the different characters are distinctive and help create a clear picture in the reader’s mind. The pacing is steady, at times faster (especially when there is an acute threat to deal with) but at others it slows down to allow for some moments of contemplation and reflection.
Although I said before that the story is not focused on the science behind the illness or on a blow-by-blow account of the spread of the epidemic, that does not mean we do not gain insight into the destruction the virus causes or how it results in a collapse of the usual niceties of civilisation, but rather that we see these on a small scale and from a human-sized perspective, that, if anything, makes it scarier, as it is easier to visualise how this could happen around us. And, as quite a few readers have commented, one feels very tempted to withdraw completely from social media after reading this book, so convincing its plot is.
This first novel in the Renova trilogy sets up the characters and the background situation for the rest of the series. I am intrigued by the number of diverse characters who are set to come together at Lindisfarne. Holy Island, a place I have visited, is fascinating, but not very large for such a crew of people, and it is not somewhere where one can easily hide or even escape from. The confluence of so many people with such different expectations and agendas is bound to be explosive, and I can’t wait for the next book, that luckily should be out in September 2017.
I recommend this novel not only to readers of post-apocalyptic literature, but also to those who enjoy stories that question our beliefs, our society, our values, and that are interested in people, their relationships, and the way they see themselves and others. I am sure this series will go from strength to strength and I look forward to the next two books.
Thanks to the author who kindly offered me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.