This week's Sunday Guardian column
When a heralded young writer claims that the first time he read a novel was at the age of 18, one has to wonder whether – as the British so elegantly put it – he’s taking the piss. The 31-year-old Sunjeev Sahota, anointed this week as one of Granta’s best young British novelists, says that it was only after picking up a copy of Midnight’s Children at Heathrow that he awakened to the possibilities of fiction. His debut and so far only novel, Ours Are the Streets, shows that one of the lessons he learned was to create for a reader a “vivid and continuous dream”, as John Gardener put it.
Ours Are the Streets deals with the radicalisation of a second-generation Pakistani immigrant in Sheffield; Sahota has said that the idea of the novel came to him after watching a YouTube video of Mohamed Sidique Khan, one of those responsible for the 7/7 London bombings. As such, it belongs to the burgeoning genre of Terrorism Lit – which contains plenty of well-intentioned but clunky novels, such as Updike’s Terrorist.
As an aside, Ayad Akhtar, another writer who has dealt with Muslim identity, was also in the spotlight this week, receiving a Pulitzer for his play, Disgraced. This, the New York Times said, accented “the incendiary topic of how radical Islam and the terrorism it inspires have affected the public discourse”. Akhtar's own debut novel, American Dervish, was a coming-of-age tale of an American Muslim in Milwaukee, very different from Sahota's work, but also shining a light on Islamic faith in a secular time.
Sahota’s Ours Are the Streets takes the form of a confession: Imtiaz Raina collectively writes to his estranged wife, daughter, and other members of his family about the events that have led him to consider donning a vest packed with explosives that he plans to set off soon. The character’s voice, distinct and compelling, is one of the more appealing features of the novel. “Knowing you’re going to die makes you want to talk,” he says, and talk he does, in a manner that artfully fuses his past, present and immediate future: “I know you’re all probably at some point going to say that you didn’t say that or that never happened or how that bit’s the wrong way round, but this is how I remember things. This is how it feels to me.”
We learn of Imtiaz’s father, a taxi driver, and his mother, trying to make the best of the life she’s leading away from their homeland. (Come to think of it, Imtiaz could well be a version of the son in Hanif Kureishi’s My Son the Fanatic.) Imtiaz courts and then marries fellow-student Rebekah, and there is much cross-cultural comedy in his initial meeting with her parents. Such light-heartedness is, of course, undercut by our knowledge of Imtiaz’s violent plans, chillingly expressed during moments such as when he looks out of his window at night: “So quiet the city is. Everyone sleeping contentedly. So indifferent to the crimes of their land.”
It’s during a visit to Pakistan, interspersed by journeys to Kashmir and Afghanistan, that Imtiaz starts to change. This is largely put down to a sense of belonging: “You’re not a valetiya any more, you understand? You’re an apna. You’re ours”. He’s indoctrinated by radicals, and a deadly plan involving him and his cousin is hatched.
As with so many other books, the set-up is more interesting than the resolution. The first half of Sahota’s book is the strongest, with the later section lacking the quality of lived experience. Imtiaz is increasingly beset by paranoia as the book progresses, and this, too, is disappointing if not haphazard in its effects.
It’s a measure of the author’s skill that despite this, Ours Are the Streets largely succeeds in its sympathetic portrayal of Imtiaz’s tortuous journey, one that seeks to understand and not condemn. Sahota may not have read a novel till he was 18, but he’s written one worth reading.