Variety is the spice of life. What constitutes a great book will vary from person to person. We all have different tastes (to this day some people still try to tell me The Da Vinci Code isn’t just something to keep at hand for when you run out of toilet roll) and some only every read within a genre. Recommending someone read The Master and Margarita won’t work if they’re only ever ‘reading’ Jojo Moyers….
But…. every now and then that rare thing will come along – a book that is so unarguably great that you find yourself telling everyone they should read it regardless of their usual choice of paperback writer. Jihadi; A Love Story by Yusuf Toropov is just such a book.
The main thrust of the story is set in the fictional Islamic Republic and it’s capital Islamic City – such fictionalised generalisation of geographical particulars allows Toropov a much freer hand in painting scenarios and characters that are so worryingly real that you’re left with the impression that they may well have happened without running the risk of naysayer nitpicking over such trivialities of actual place/date/official-versions-of that would have hindered his craft had he set it in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan. Thelonious Liddell is an American intelligence operative captured, tortured and imprisoned by local authorities after a mission gone wrong in Islamic City. Fatima A is the young interpreter sent, initially, to assist in translation as he’s interrogated and, later, question Thelonious directly.
Jihadi: A Love Story is Liddell’s confession / memoir as written during his final months on paper smuggled to him in his cell at The Beige Motel – a Federal Prison in Virginia. We know it doesn’t end well for Liddell but how he got to the point we find him as Ali Liddell is a hell of a story. It’s the story of how he went from senior agent to suspected terrorist, the story of Fatima and her family (how I wish I’d never learnt of flechettes), the actions of US Marine Mike Mazzoni, of the complex local information supply to the Directorate from shadowy sources, the weight of the past, marital and mental breakdowns, the rise of a new fundamentalist sect and how it all, piece by glorious piece, comes together in a gripping and though-provoking novel. All with a little help from the White Album and notations from R.L Firestone, the agent responsible for Liddell’s interrogation – one of the biggest questions the reader must face is who to believe, though as events unfold one version becomes increasingly unhinged while the other strives for clarity.
This is a book which raises some big questions. Questions about faith and love and, on a more pertinent and timely issue; questions on the West’s foreign policy and habits of wading into countries and cultures without any real awareness or consideration.
There’s also the question that Jihadi asks as to where the lines of ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ lie given the actions of each – for all the accusations that Liddell is a ‘terrorist’ and has been ‘radicalised’, the only action he commits to have earned such treatment is so minimal in comparison to that of the supposed ‘heroes’ as to wonder where the distinction can be drawn, if it can – and that’s without considering Fatima’s supposed act of terrorism. Living is easy with eyes closed, both sides are capable of atrocities yet we make the assumption that when we’re told by ‘the Directorate’ that Side A is Good and Side B is ‘Terrorism’ it’s correct because they say so. This book asks us to open our eyes and consider things from a different perspective. There’s no side-taking, finger-pointing or blame-allotting, the tone of the narrative is purely neutral, all sides have their arguments shown, allowing – in the case of Mazzoni vs Fatima – the reader to make their own mind up. Granted Firestone’s annotations argue that Liddell references events that he was not present for and cannot possibly know about so his word cannot be trusted… but, then again, Liddell is a senior agent; it wouldn’t be that much of a stretch for him to find information and piece events together for himself after the fact.
Some of those events are not for the faint at heart. The ridiculous “War on Terror” is just that – a war and one with very human consequences and casualties. Unfortunately many of those casualties are innocent civilians and characters in whom Toporov has breathed life to such an extent as to remove any possibility of not being affected by their fates. The fact that the tone is neutral and detached emotionally means that some of the more harrowing and violent scenes hit just that much harder – it’s your own emotional responses you’re projecting onto the text, not the characters’ and all the more affecting accordingly. Many was the time that I had to put the book down and take a breath, hug my son and reflect with gratitude for the safety in which we live. There’s simply no way to read this and, if you weren’t already, not wonder just where we’re going as a species when we’re capable of such treatment of one another.
The nonlinear narrative is in keeping with the premise of these pages being from a memoir and keeps the pace ripping along and while those annotations may seem intrusive at first they soon present yet another compelling sub-plot. Toporov is able to sew in many more characters and plot arcs than a standard, linear narrative might allow for, and move between them so as to offer multiple view points and keep the reader hooked as they each near their boiling point, their moments arise and they intersperse.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been gripped so completely by such a multi-faceted novel and I simply cannot recommend Jihadi: A Love Story enough. I’ve seen references to Homeland and yes, there are echoes of such tight covert intelligence plots here, there are echoes of le Carré and even Vonnegut. But they’re only echoes, the loudest voice here is that of Toporov; a compelling new author with a style of his own delivering an exhilaratingly fresh, important and powerful novel so very much of its time.
Thanks again to Karen at Orenda for sending me this novel and to check out the other stops on the Blog Tour – there have been some great interviews and insights along the way -and grab a copy of Jihadi: A Love Story sharpish.