I had been pretty desperate to pull a real-life, physical book from my TBR, as I have been terribly guilty of only reading physical review or challenge books and NetGalley ebooks recently. And how glad I am that I took this one off, such a good story, if a traumatic read at times, and so absorbing. I apparently bought this on a pre-order in the autumn of 2020 and it turned up slightly unexpectedly in November of that year – I have at least now read all of the four books I acquired then.

Sairish Hussain – “The Family Tree”

(27 November 2020)

Saahil spoke of success as thought it was waiting around for him like a faithful pet dog. It would come rushing to him as soon as he whistled. He’d worked hard enough for it and more importantly, Saahil wanted it badly enough. (p. 85)

This is the second book I’ve read recently (“Yinka, Where is Your Huzband?” being the other) where the author has written in an author’s note that they wanted to write the book they wanted to read, where they saw themselves represented. In Hussain’s case, she’s written a great book about Pakistani Muslims in a Northern British town which has not one arranged marriage plot or row about headscarves or any other stereotypical plot point. What it is is a fresh, approachable, well-researched and at times visceral portrayal of an ordinary family going through events that could happen to anyone.

We open with Amjad caring for his baby daughter, Zahra after his wife’s death in childbirth. He wraps her in his wife’s beautiful pashmina shawl, with its image of a tree with birds fluttering around and in it, and this shawl will see us through the next 500-odd pages. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but we watch Amjad doing his best, helped by his mum and his best friend Harun and Meena, who step in to help and support the little family, completed by Amjad’s son Saahil and Harun and Meena’s son Ehsan, Saahil’s best friend. We watch the kids growing up, close as anything, and then Saahil and Ehsan are finishing university and going for a night out which for the one gobby, handsome boy and the other quieter lad will change their lives forever.

Bringing in themes of addiction, revenge, homelessness and betrayal, we watch events slowly unfold for another decade, but secrets will always come out, people who have gone away can almost never stay away, and various characters will have to decide whether or not to forgive.

The family drama is set against the changing times in the country. Zahra has never really known the UK before 9/11, as she’s eight when the attacks occur, and she becomes an ardent feminist and highly politicised, writing a provocative blog that she knows will be undermining her opportunities to work as an investigative journalist for the BBC – will she get any chances? Her cousins in Birmingham don’t think so, with their middle son offering a vignette of the institutional racism of job applications.

I loved the main and supporting characters, Ammi with her lack of English and range of colourful swearwords, Libby, Zahra’s best friend, and Ken, an older White bloke who comes into their lives and provides an unexpected strength to them (I also liked the White characters being the side-kicks). Having Ken in the mix, as well as Zahra and Saahil’s university friends, allows Hussain to demonstrate learning points and microaggressions without making it laboured or didactic. I liked how one character is shown regaining dignity through his religion, while mosque is a central point for Amjad and different kinds of imam are shown.

I’m glad the current upswell in publishing of works by Global Majority People is continuing and allowing writers like Sairish Hussain to write what they have wanted to read for a long time and give representation to others in their communities. A genuinely suspenseful, heartfelt and moving first novel, this is a good and recommended read.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 3 Book 2/41 – 39 to go.

Yet more Another Bookish Beck Book Serendipity : this was the second book in quick succession (the other being “Blessed is the Daughter …“) to mention Crimewatch. I can only think this is an example of Baader-Meinhof Syndrome (you see something once and it’s suddenly everywhere) although I really can’t think of Crimewatch being mentioned anywhere else recently!