Vicky Newham- Turn A Blind Eye

A dead girl.
A wall of silence.
DI Maya Rahman is running out of time.

A headmistress is found strangled in her East London school, her death the result of a brutal and ritualistic act of violence. Found at the scene is a single piece of card, written upon which is an ancient Buddhist precept:

I shall abstain from taking the ungiven.

At first, DI Maya Rahman can’t help but hope this is a tragic but isolated murder. Then, the second body is found. Faced with a community steeped in secrets and prejudice, Maya must untangle the cryptic messages left at the crime scenes to solve the deadly riddle behind the murders – before the killer takes another victim…

Having recently been a wee bit disillusioned with British crime thrillers and some of their failures in presenting a realistic picture of multicultural Britain, Turn A Blind Eye proved to be a refreshing new thriller from debut author Vicky Newham.

Rooting the book in the East End of London in a comprehensive school, Newham, drawing heavily on her own experience of teaching in this environment. From the outset, we bear witness to a singularly authentic depiction of the daily grind and small moments of achievement that teachers experience in this most challenging of educational environments. With such a disparate array of cultures, differing educational achievement, and the often difficult family backgrounds of the pupils, Newham balances perfectly the everyday experiences of the both the teachers and pupils, the good and the bad, the challenges and the rewards.  Giving nothing away, the series of murders that then begin to happen within the school, allows Newham to dig deeper into the teachers’ and pupils’ lives, and puts front and centre the question of the degree of  responsibility  teachers hold when their pupils school and family life begin to impact on each other, and to what extent their intervention can lead to harmful results. The suicide of a female pupil plays an integral role in the plot, and Newham never fails to treat this issue, and the reasons for it in both a sensitive, and balanced way. Equally, she applies this same degree of balance to the characters of the teachers involved, and their contrary responses, both sympathetic and less so, to the everyday troubles and pressures that the pupils experience, when cultural and familial conflict arise.

The multicultural tensions and difficulties of the schools and society are expanded in the book in the characters of DI Maya Rahman, and her partner DS Dan Maguire. Rahman is Bangladeshi, and Maguire is a resident of Australia where his Aborigine wife and children live. Rahman has recently lost her brother, having just returned from his funeral in Bangladesh, and the book is punctuated with a shifting of timelines showing the problems she has experienced in relation to her family, and the cultural demands that have so sadly resulted in her brother’s death. Although she is still in a state of grief, she is a determined and professional detective, unafraid to confront the stupidity of her superiors, and to ask uncomfortable questions to ascertain the truth. Maguire proves an interesting sidekick with the references to his life in Australia, and the challenges he and his family face, and the natural bonhomie and good humour that he injects in to his and Rahman’s working relationship. I liked the way that Newham portrays them both as inching their way to a comfortable working relationship, and the strength of this gradually grows as the book progresses, leading to a solid base for hopefully further investigations in the future.

As I have mentioned, their is a particular onus in the book on cultural and religious experience, and Newham deftly addresses the beliefs and tenets of Buddhism, Islam and so on. This undercurrent of religious and cultural tension is thought provoking and informative throughout, and the authorial voice is detectable but not overly obtrusive, as Newham seeks to balance her own first hand experience and knowledge within the boundaries of the story. As well as being entertained and engaged with the book as a crime thriller, I enjoyed this extra level of detail, which I found both informative, enlightening, and at times incredibly poignant too.

All in all, I found Turn A Blind Eye a well-plotted and compelling thriller throughout, and despite the fact that the reveal of the guilty party felt slightly disjointed in the depleted cast of characters in the overall narrative, I still felt that this was an assured and well written debut. Am looking forward to my next entanglement with Rahman and Maguire. Recommended.

(With thanks to HQ for the ARC)

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Karim Miske- Arab Jazz

 

arab1Kosher sushi, kebabs, a second hand bookshop and a bar: the 19th arrondissement in Paris is a cosmopolitan neighbourhood where multicultural citizens live, love and worship alongside one another. This peace is shattered when Ahmed Taroudant’s melancholy daydreams are interrupted by the blood dripping from his upstairs neighbour’s brutally mutilated corpse.

The violent murder of Laura Vignole, and the pork joint placed next to her, set imaginations ablaze across the neighborhood, and Ahmed finds himself the prime suspect. However detectives Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot are not short of leads. What is the connection between a disbanded hip-hop group and the fiery extremist preachers that jostle in the streets for attention? And what is the mysterious new pill that is taking the district by storm?

Sometimes, when reviewing books regularly there is an almost fixed template in your mind to construct your thoughts and feelings about a book. You provide an overview of the waxing and waning of a plot, the strength of the characterisation, the use of location and so on to formulate your critique. However, occasionally you are confronted with a book where you cannot resort to this more simplistic template, and even begin to question your own ability to find the words to describe your reading experience of the book in question. This is the dilemma I faced with Arab Jazz. So I will bumble on in my own sweet way- bear with me reader…

I read this book a few weeks ago immediately in the aftermath of the horrific events in Paris which stunned and shocked us all. Perhaps reading this book at such an apposite time provided me with a more visceral reaction to the book, but in hindsight, the strong messages that Miske conveys throughout the book regarding religious tolerance and intolerance are entirely in tune with the contemporary social tensions raised by religious difference. Casting its light on three secular groups, comprising of Muslims, Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Miske provides a balanced and objective study of all three, impartially conveying to the reader the best and worst aspects of all and the protagonists linked to each. Instead, he succinctly reveals the human failings and frailties of each, the black shadow of fundamentalism, and the propensity for greed and violence no matter what faith or race defines you. The melting pot of characters, and the differing natures of their personal interactions form the very heart of this novel, across faiths, class, occupations and even continents (as the action pivots out to America) , thus transcending this book above any conventional tag of a ‘crime novel’, and leading us to the beating heart of a multicultural, multi-faith contemporary European city. In some ways this feels like a love letter to Miske’s adopted city, powerfully illustrating the frustrations inherent in modern society, but by the same token, replete with a sense of the author’s love for this complicated and multi-faceted city. It works beautifully when combined with the socio-political issues of the book, and our own newly formed perceptions of Parisian society.

The central crime of the novel is the hook to add all of Miske’s weightier issues on to, and works well with this in mind. With his two disparate police protagonists- both strong and engaging characters- the plot unfolds at a good pace, slowly inveigling the separate groups of characters that Miske introduces us to, with their singular ways of life and beliefs. The opening murder also gives the author the added scope to introduce a most tentative and heartfelt, albeit slightly stumbling, love affairs that I have ever read, that carries all the simplistic honesty of those great love affairs from classic fiction, and adds a residual warmth to the more weighty issues that Miske addresses.

This is an intelligent, multi-layered and objective novel, that will make you think and increase your awareness of the differences that lay at the heart of any modern society. Aside from a few less fluid passages- perhaps slightly lost in translation- the book consistently flows in pace and plot. You will feel emotionally invested in the character’s lives, and most importantly of all feel that you have read a book that deserves to be read. And if this one doesn’t feature in my books of the year, I will eat my own foot. Possibly.

Born in 1964 in Abidjan to a Mauritanian father and a French mother, Karim Miské grew up in Paris before leaving to study journalism in Dakar. He now lives in France, and is making documentary films on a wide range of subjects including deafness, for which he learned sign language, and the common roots between the Jewish and Islamic religions. He runs a Senegalese restaurant in the 11th arrondissement and has started writing TV scripts. Arab Jazz is the author’s first novel. Visit the author’s website here

Follow this link to hear an upcoming BBC Radio 3 programme (11/2/15) featuring Karim Miske and Aatish Taseer talking about contemporary France.

(With thanks to MacLehose Press for the reading copy)