In his interview at the 2018 Asian Writers festival, the author Amer Anwar discussed how he devoured crime fiction but had yet to read one set within the Asian community.
Thus started his writing journey. Brothers in Blood his debut novel went on to receive the prestigious Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger Award under the title ‘Western Fringes,’ and recently featured on Radio 4’s Open Book as well as numerous Best Books lists for 2018 including The Guardian and The Times.
Set in contemporary Southall, we enter the world of Zaq recently released from prison and working in a dead end job in a builders yard. The quest that our protagonist is tasked with is to find Rita, the daughter of his employer Mr Brar who has run away. As the story unfolds Zaq learns that she’s being forced into an arranged marriage but the facts turn out to be more complicated than we or Zaq imagine. Accompanying him on his journey into the Asian criminal underworld is his childhood friend Jags.
Tension builds throughout the book as Zaq treads the line between the competing expectations laid upon him by Mr Brar, Rita’s thuggish brothers and his own desire for self-preservation and to protect those who he perceives as vulnerable. The threats of imprisonment through false accusations, fear for his own life, along with what is yet to be revealed about the characters keep us gripped right to the end. ‘Who can you trust?’ and ‘Who or what is around the corner?’ is the staple of any crime fiction and Brothers in Blood doesn’t disappoint.
Aside from the violence of the underworld that we’re drawn into, the relationship between Zaq and his friends, in particular Jags, is well observed portraying the unquestioning support between friends as if they were brothers. Cultural divides and the concept of honour are explored in the book in various forms. Rita who is Sikh is purported to have run away with a Muslim, a situation that has to be resolved with added urgency for fear of bringing shame to her family ‘of all the guys she could’ve picked to go out with, a Muslim would’ve been the very worst choice as far as her family were concerned. The reasons were historical…’ Zaq who is of Muslim heritage is of a sensibility for whom religion or politics is irrelevant. Jags his closest friend is Sikh. As with any book which portrays a specific culture in a particular light, there is the danger of stereotyping. Forced marriages in a patriarchal society is a trope that can be misused in storytelling, but Amer Anwar has shifted this narrative adding a nuance that reflects the complexity of individuals. Violent Asian gangs prowling the streets of London may also be a pleasing narrative for some but let’s remember, this is crime fiction and inevitably there has to be devious devilish criminal characters of Asian heritage for the story to proceed.
If anything Amer Anwar portrays Asian culture as complex as any other. There are those who break the rules and justify their dubious actions with equally dubious moral codes. There are those who are tender, kind and know when they see injustice and seek to do their utmost to defend what’s right. Of course there are individual characters with many if not all these traits reflecting that we’re all a bunch of contradictions.
Publishers in the past have been hesitant to embrace a book peppered with non-English phrases. I can understand that this may be a barrier to engaging with the book. However since the start of my school days in an East End Comprehensive we were encouraged to infer the meaning of unfamiliar words from context before rushing to a dictionary. Shakespeare for many of us felt like a different language. When Zaq is told by his yard manager that he’s been summoned to see the boss and Zaq asks why, we can surmise that the reply by the yard manager ‘Mehnu Kee putha?’ as he waves him away in a disinterested manner means ‘how do I know?’ But as is always the case, that view is coloured by the sensibilities of the reader. I as a British born Hindu-Punjabi who was never taught either Hindi or Punjabi but can understand the odd phrase, see it as a window into the world of a culture that is comfortable inhabiting two spheres, that of their own cultural heritage and the host country. As readers we don’t need to understand each and every word spoken by the characters. In fact books, just like films, can be written with different readers in mind. Children’s films invariably insert extras for accompanying adults to identify with. It’s not essential to the story but a nod to those with an added depth of knowledge.
Amer Anwar has set his novel in a place that he clearly knows well describing the streets of Southall and its surrounding areas with such detail that at times I wanted to reach for google maps and follow the characters on their journeys
Has this book changed my life? No. Do I identify with the misfortunes and violence that befalls the characters? No. I live a largely uneventful life free of crime. Do I understand the complexities of growing up in an Asian community in Britain? Yes. Does this book along with others such as ‘Sophia Khan is not Obliged’ signal a change in publishing and popular culture that acknowledges that there are universal stories that transcend culture? Yes. Just as the TV series ‘This Life’ in the 1990’s portrayed an Asian female who I could identify with, the current wave of British Asian fiction is set to do the same. Fiction in which Asian characters are portrayed in a non-stereotypical manner, in which being Asian isn’t the dominant theme and the plight of the immigrant isn’t the central theme but rather being a human with a life filled with everyday angst, grief, love and humour is ever more important. In an apparently increasingly polarised world, we need to focus on what we share. What better way to demonstrate our common humanity than through nuanced fiction.
Brothers in Blood maybe set to draw in a new readership that otherwise would bypass this genre. I for one am looking forward to the sequel.
Published by Dialogue Books. 448 pages.