The Innocent’s Story asks a lot of its reader. There’s no promise of an easy ride in a book which begins, ‘OK. This is what I think happened: I got blown up. Boom boom, explosion, Cassina Dixon, aged thirteen, is blasted limb from limb.’ A reader has to work with a narrator who indeed seems to be dead, a ‘para-spirit’, finding lodging within fissures in living creatures’ brains, beginning with the woman laying out the body of Cassina’s younger sister Aelfin in the funeral parlour, for she too is the victim of a terrorist bomb. The para-spirit moves on to her grieving father, then to a racist hooligan, the brain of the family dog, her desolate mother and, eventually, to Ahim, the suicide bomber himself who, it seems, cannot be physically killed.
And that last move allows her not so much understanding – things are too complicated for that – but entry to Ahim’s tortured nightmare and a glimpse of his past. The device of the constantly shifting narrator means, in a sense, that we have access to a 1st-person and a 3rd-person viewpoint simultaneously, since Cassina sees things from the inside of several heads.
To go back a bit. Ahim is a T’lanni, follower of the angel Tingali. Though Nicky Singer acknowledges that 9/11 was her starting point, the invention of the T’lannis allows her novel to be a politically and religiously even-handed and unspecific book. It’s an exploration of chasms of misunderstanding, a search to grasp motivations. We feel as though she is discovering insights – alongside Cassina – as she moves through the novel, and that leads to some elements which transcend the pedestrian and even the logical. At one level, there’s the quality of Cassina’s thought and language; she is staggeringly articulate for a 13-year-old – not too many at that age use the word pace so adroitly, for example, but Nicky Singer makes no concessions. Again, a reader might find Ahim’s indestructability tricky. And then there’s the matter of Cassina’s reincarnation, her return to her body and her overwhelmed parents. Some re-reading might be needed to come to terms with the powerful final chapter describing Ahim’s translation to an afterlife shared by T’lanis, Muslims, Jews, Christians, atheists; here, he meets Aelfin, whose ‘dogged, generous love’ is extended redemptively to her murderer.
Almost inevitably, there are loose ends and even confusions. Doctors and parents believe that what Cassina has told us has passed in the novel has been an extended hallucination. But if it has been, Cassina has learned through it to ‘grab life now, hold it, hug it, squeeze it dry, because tomorrow…’ Given the ambition of what the author addresses – well, if you want the loose ends tied up, you’re reading the wrong book. There was a time in the UK when to take on such themes a writer, ironically, could secure publication only on children’s lists – The Owl Service, The House at Norham Gardens and, for that matter, ‘His Dark Materials’ illustrate the point. This book belongs to that indefinable and admirable group.