Na’ima B Robert is ‘descended from Scottish Highlanders on her father’s side and the Zulu people on her mother’s’, was born in Leeds, grew up in Zimbabwe, went to university in London and now ‘divides her time between London and Cairo’. Unsurprising, then, that this novel trades in contrasts and conflicts: between cultures, youth and experience, artistic and academic, religious and secular and, ostensibly, male and female. Yet the vs. of the title is misleading, since apart from one or two sibling tiffs most families experience most days, the 16-year-old twins Farhana and Farad could not be more caring towards each other. True, they’re very different: Farhana is academically able while her brother shows an interest only in Art, though for someone failing at school he is remarkably articulate and self-aware. They are growing up in a Northern (maybe) town with parents insistent upon some of the traditions of Pakistan (arranged marriages, for example) while wanting to blend in to their British environment. It’s Ramadan, an opportunity both twins want to take to deepen their spiritual commitment. It’s not going to be easy since Farad is seduced by the attractions of a drug-pushing, violent gang where he hopes to win the street cred he longs for. For her part, Farhana is frustrated by the restricted role of women which satisfies all but one of her parents’ generation – and torn between her attraction to a like-minded boy and her family’s insistence that she saves herself for the husband they choose.
It may be that Robert is not entirely sure of her implied reader – is she assuming we’re non-Muslims, perhaps? Certainly, the careful and lengthy accounts of religious practices and the preparation of food during Ramadan, the didactic homilies of Auntie Najda, the significance of wearing the hijab et al, somehow constrain both the narrative and the prose itself, especially the dialogue. Maybe the old problem of conscientious research showing through? There are some tired devices also – the novel introduces the twins through parallel ‘the face that looked back at her/him from the mirror…’ scenes. Robert is very good – frightening, even – at street violence, but was it too crude to bring the novel to a resolution through having Farhana run over by the gang-leader’s BMW, an accident which neatly leads to new levels of family understanding and love?
Despite such reservations, I found myself admiring and respecting the ambition of this novel, caught up in the characters and their journeys, caring how things turned out for them; and very much wanting to know what Muslim readers would make of it.