An uncertain hero

2008-10-15 00:00

“Black-eyed night” is a phrase from Greek tragedy — the first of many quotations in this book from a range of diverse sources. Each chapter is headed by a quotation; and I must admit to having been often stumped as to the relevance of many of the quotes to their respective chapters. I am also unsure of the significance of the book’s title. All these considerations suggest that this book somewhat mystified this reviewer. Perhaps most worrying of all is a nagging doubt about the point of the whole novel.

Structurally, it follows the misadventures of its dubious anti-hero Shehzad in Cape Town, with occasional flashbacks to his experiences in London in 2005 at the time of the bomb-scare of that year. As a Muslim, he feels tainted and disgraced by the London events, and carries that dark hangover back to South Africa. In fact he is clearly a partially lapsed Muslim, rootless, at odds with his parents and his brother, drifting through half-relationships with women and morally-twilit deals with various male characters.

To an extent, the novel is “picaresque”, and entertaining enough on that level. It also provides an interesting portrait of Muslim society, particularly in Cape Town (and there is a handy glossary at the back). It is also competently written, with inspired moments (out in the universe “stars were dying in great gasps of fire”; “She stood still … a small hunched figure like a bedraggled sparrow caught in a rainstorm”; “Giant chandeliers … like crystal spiders”;) but I had a persistent feeling of pointless elaboration and often over-written detail. And Shehzad’s rather aimless meanderings, punctuated by a few uncommitted sexual encounters, made me inclined to say, “So what?” This is a mostly well-written, mildly absorbing novel which, for all its hints at dark forces in the background, ends with a brief blast of sudden violence followed by a few whimpers.

David Pike

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