Today, as part of our Year of Orenda, I’m sharing my thoughts on Jihadi: A Love Story by Yusuf Toropov. I honestly didn’t know what to expect when tucking into this book, but I do absolutely trust Orenda to provide me with a brilliant story. Here’s what the book is all about:
About the Book
A former intelligence agent stands accused of terrorism, held without charge in a secret overseas prison. His memoir is in the hands of a brilliant but erratic psychologist whose annotations paint a much darker picture. As the story unravels, we are forced to assess the truth for ourselves, and decide not only what really happened on one fateful overseas assignment but who is the real terrorist.Available from: Amazon | Kobo | Waterstones | Hive | Googleplay | Apple Books
Peopled by a diverse and unforgettable cast of characters, whose reliability as narrators is always questioned, and with a multi-layered plot heaving with unexpected and often shocking developments, Jihadi: A Love Story is an intelligent thriller that asks big questions.
Complex, intriguing and intricately woven, this is an astonishing debut that explores the nature of good and evil alongside notions of nationalism, terrorism and fidelity, and, above all, the fragility of the human mind.
So … this is going to be a very tough review to write, mainly because this is such a unique book to get to grips with. It is complex in style and story, very intelligent and with a very important, sometimes brutal narrative but is, when all is said and done a story of family and of betrayal set against a backdrop of war and terrorism. I won’t lie, it took me some time to get into my stride with this book due to the way in which it is constructed, the main story sandwiched between seemingly editorial notes and references to beatles albums, and I wasn’t quite sure how it all tied in at first. Those segments pulled me out of the story a little, although their significance and importance to the story became clearer as I moved further through the pages and, (obscure Beatles references aside because I will state here and now – I don’t like the Beatles and most of it meant nothing to me) added a very complex and twisted layer to the books as whole.
This is the story of Thelonius Liddell, an US intelligence operative whose book, memoir almost, is the item being dissected and annotated by the anonymous Beatles aficion, and Fatima Adara who, in defence of her family and her country, eventually finds herself on the wrong side of the law and faced with a threat she doesn’t even know exists. The book details the threads of their two lives, so very different and yet intrinsically linked, showing us, the reader, the points at which they intersect and how, in turn they feed into the observations of the mystery third narrator and a US Marine, Mike Mazzoni.
It is really hard to sum up the story without giving away too much of the plot. The story moves back and forth between Liddell’s complex life at home and his time as a prisoner in the Islamic Republic, charged with murder and facing the distinct possibility of a death sentence. This is how he meets Fatima, the person assigned to be his interpreter. Liddell is a very challenging character to get to know, damaged psychologically and with more than a few ticks which can be a little off putting. I’m not sure I ever grew to like him, but I came to understand him and to see how events in his life drove him towards the almost inevitable ending. It was intriguing to see how the author took him from a true non-believer, a person who put country over religion, to someone who, as a result of his time in captivity, came to understand the Muslim religion far more than he had anticipated. The way the not quite complete conversion is written, is sympathetic to both the Muslim and non-Muslim points of view, but also challenges your understanding of what the Muslim faith really means and the importance of prayer which becomes almost like an unexpected safety blanket to Liddell in his darkest days.
Fatima is a character I could like and did grow to respect quite quickly. She is a woman living and working in a man’s world, respectful of her faith, far more so than some of those around her, and yet with a core strength and such self assurance that was so absorbing to read. It is wonderful to see this strength portrayed in such a positive way, even if there was a sense of inevitability about her fate also. There is no getting away from it – the author paints a very clear picture of all of their futures near to the start of the novel. She is driven by a desire to protect and support her family, especially her younger sister, but also by her Father’s confidence in her ability to achieve whatever she wants to in life and to not let anything stop her, especially not her gender. The relationship between her and Liddell is fractious to begin with but you can see the lines becoming blurred, even if they are never eventually crossed.
Mike Mazzoli – what can you say about him? A manifestation of every ill that has ever been written about soldiers in warfare. He is mean, brutal even, has little respect for the country in which is is stationed, or for its religion. He is antagonistic from the off and has every hateful characteristic that will make you skin crawl and make you angry with the book and his actions. But he is a version of reality. Not representative of every soldier or every attitude towards Islam, but the inherent racism and sense of entitlement has been seen far too often for this to be dismissed as a pure work of fiction. He was almost every atrocity imaginable rolled up into a single character, and whilst most of his actions were taken off the page, the results were not and the author did not spare us the after effects of his behaviour, some of which is truly enraging and heart breaking and which leads to a rather pivotal moment towards the end of the book when we find out what one of the characters is really made of.
This is an important piece of fiction, if only because it explores the brutal side of conflict and prejudice, not only of the Western world towards Islam, but Islam’s response to the west. It is certainly a thought provoking novel, exposing readers to the true meaning of the term Jihadi – struggling or striving – taking it far beyond its modern links only to the world of terrorism. It is beautifully written, rich in imagery and able to draw you into both the moments of intense action, and still keep you engaged in those quieter moments. Those scenes that seem almost incongruous to the story and yet are so important to our understanding of the characters as a whole. All are perfectly pitched, perfectly place, to create intrigue and yet contain subtle misdirection, small omissions that you do not spot until just the right moment, leaving you second guessing yourself and whether you missed something that perhaps should have been more obvious. Or perhaps not.
It won’t be a book for everyone, it is definitely a very ‘literary’ styled piece (and I do hate to use that term so do not do so lightly). Once I found my rhythm with the writing style though, when I understood how those interspersed passages about the Beatles fitted into the story as a whole, I was completely absorbed in the book and in the fates of Liddell and Fatima, knowing the tragic inevitability of their story, but wishing them a happier ending nonetheless. And the ending … well I think it has the capacity to surprise you. I certainly did not envisage it playing out quite the way it did and yet it makes perfect sense. Hell hath no fury as they say.
Thought provoking, emotional, at times brutal, this is a challenging and often intense read that I will remember for some time.
About the Author
Yusuf Toropov is an American Muslim writer. He’s the author or co-author of a number of nonfiction books, including Shakespeare for Beginners. His full-length play An Undivided Heart was selected for a workshop production at the National Playwrights Conference, and his one-act play The Job Search was produced off-Broadway. Jihadi: A Love Story, which reached the quarter-finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, is his first novel. He is currently living in Ireland.
Author Links: Twitter
Books by Yusuf Toropov