Monday, 24 June 2019

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Review: This Green and Pleasant Land by Ayisha Malik

This Green and Pleasant Land by Ayisha Malik

This Green and Pleasant Land by Ayisha Malik

Published: 13th June 2019 | Publisher: Bonnier Zaffre | Cover Designer: Nick StearnSource: Publisher
Ayisha Malik's Website

Accountant Bilal Hasham and his journalist wife, Mariam, plod along contentedly in the sleepy, chocolate box village they've lived in for eight years.

Then Bilal is summoned to his dying mother's bedside in Birmingham. Sakeena Hasham is not long for this world but refuses to leave it until she ensures that her son remembers who he is: a Muslim, however much he tries to ignore it. She has a final request. Instead of whispering her prayers in her dying moments, she instructs Bilal to go home to his village, Babbel's End, and build a mosque.

Mariam is horrified. The villagers are outraged. How can a grieving Bilal choose between honouring his beloved mum's last wish and preserving everything held dear in the village he calls home?

But it turns out home means different things to different people.

Battle lines are drawn and this traditional little community becomes the colourful canvas on which the most current and fundamental questions of identity, friendship, family and togetherness are played out.

What makes us who we are, who do we want to be, and how far would we go to fight for it?
From Goodreads.

Book Depository | Wordery | Goodreads

I received this eProof for free from Bonnier Zaffre via NetGalley for the purposes of providing an honest review.

Trigger/Content Warnings: This book features death, grief, discussion of drug use, racism and Islamophobia.

Having loved the Sofia Khan duology, I've been really excited to read Ayisha Malik's next book ever since I first heard of it. This Green and Pleasant Land is in some ways quite the departure from Malik's previous books, but it's bloody incredible.

On the surface, This Green and Pleasant Land is about Bilal wanting to build a mosque in his village, Babbel's End, to honour his mother's dying wish, which his community are completely against it. But dig a little deeper, and this is a story about people. People, and their own stories. While This Green and Pleasant Land tackles important topics, it's still written with Malik's trademark wit, with humour throughout. But even so, at times this is a very difficult book to read, as we see the racism and Islamophobia Bilal and his family have to face from those who passionately object to the idea that they have somewhere to worship. White it had me laughing out loud at times, it also had me raging.

This Green and Pleasant Land is narrated by five characters. Bilal, who isn't sure whether he's just trying to build a mosque just to do as his mum asked, or if he actually wants a mosque, as he's not exactly a practicing Muslim. The lines get blurred the more the people of Babbel's End argue against it - why shouldn't he and his family have a place to worship? All the while, trying to deal with his nervous constitution, and the fact that his wife, Mariam, seems to be growing ever distant. Mariam isn't happy, but she can't exactly work out why, what she wants, or what exactly it is that she feels. Her ex-husband, Saif, is back in their lives, now wanting contact with their son, Haaris, and bringing back all kinds of memories. Wrestling with her confusion becomes harder when Bilal announces he wants to build a mosque, which affects the way they're treated - the way her son is treated - by the people they considered friends, or were at least friendly with. But as tempers rise, she finds herself just as determined to fight for this mosque, despite not knowing what she wants otherwise. Rukhsana is Bilal's aunt, his mother's sister, who comes to live with them from Birmingham after she has a fall and needs looking after. Rukhsana lives quite a quiet life; she never really left the house she lived in with her sister, speaks barely any English, and has living with immense sadness ever since her husband died one week into their marriage many years ago. She's so happy Bilal is trying to build a mosque for his mother, but finds the anger of others confusing. She forms an, at first tentative, unlikely friendship with Shelley, which comes to mean a great deal. Richard is Babbel's End's vicar, and Bilal's best friend. He is torn between his automatic unease at the thought of having a mosque in their town, and his role as a vicar which argues that everyone should have a place to worship, as well as his friendship with Bilal, and wanting to support him. And then there's his unresolved feelings for Anne, a woman in the village he was quite good friends with, until her son died several months ago. Then there is Shelley, leader of the Parish Council, who could not be more against the idea of a mosque in their quaint, normal, English village, and aggressively organises the people of Babbel's End to campaign against the mosque. She has an unhappy home life, and despite the language barrier, and their differing opinions on the mosque, forms an important and meaningful friendship with Rukhsana.

As I've said, This Green and Pleasant Land is about far more than about a Muslim family wanting to build a mosque in their village, and despite how awful things do get, it's actually a really very beautiful story. I just completely adored it. Malik has been very clever in giving us multiple narrators, plus other side characters, who all have their own stories. Because you do feel for most people; you grow to like them and become invested in their own lives and how things will work out for them, all the while, really hoping the mosque gets built. Malik humanises characters that are just bloody awful. Because the way people the Hashams knew and liked completely turn on them is despicable. They're after having a building built - yes, a place of worship, a building with meaning and importance, but a building all the same. And now they're either being ignored completely, or having people turn cold. They're having people tell them a mosque isn't English, it's going to be an eyesore, it's too different and too other. And the way people talk about them behind their back is disgraceful. They're anonymously told to go home. It made me so, so angry, and then so very sad, my heart breaking for a family who just wanted a place to worship - for people who are constantly told they don't belong. They're not English enough, not white, and not Christian, so this is not their home.

'Shelley took a sip of her sherry and looked around at the heaving crowd she'd managed to gather [...] People from neighbouring villages - Little Chebby and Swinknowle, Romsey and Baerney - had also come. Because what if Bill's ideas caught on? What if more Muslims came out and decided they wanted to bring foreign ideas into their green spaces? There was a reason people chose to live in a quiet village. There was a certain way of doing things in these parts.'
"I didn't know what to say when I heard," exclaimed one voice.
"Oh I said exactly what I felt," came another. "That Pa--"
"It is indeed a very trying time," interjected Shelley quickly, unsure where that particular statement was going. "But I don't think
any of us have the intention of letting this abomination go ahead."' (25%)

'"Why shouldn't we have something new?" Mrs Pankhurst had said.
Everyone looked at her, a wave of loud grumbling.
"But-but-but," Mr Pankhurst stuttered, shocked at the notion of
anything new. More so that his wife should suggest it. "It would change the whole look! It's unthinkable."
"This is
England," another had replied.
"Isn't Bilal English?" Mrs Pankhurst had leant forward, a challenging glint in her eye.
They had all looked at each other. Even Shelley didn't have an answer to this one.
"He's Pakistani, isn't he?"
"He was born here though, eh?"
"It's all about
links, isn't it? You send me to any country to live and I tell you, England will always be in my blood," said Copperthwaite.
"But your children would no longer be English," replied Mrs Pankhurst as the crowd's eyes narrowed. Copperthwaite's frown contracted because he had no children, and the sadness of it never quite left him.
"Well, if I had, they damn well would be. They'd be white."'
(36%)

'"They really hate me now."
"What did you expect?" laughed Vaseem. He opened up his arms and put on a posh accent. "Yes, come along - build a mosque on our green land. We invaded and ruled your country for hundreds of years, so it's the least we could do." He shook his head.
"Well, they never did
me any personal harm," replied Bilal. He wasn't fond of this historical blame ideology. "You can't move forward if you hang on to the past," he added.
Vaseem thought about it. "No, bro. But you can't move forward without thinking about what went wrong in the past either."'
(58%)

I really need to talk specifically about Shelley. The amount of patience Malik must have to write a character like her. Because she is a person, she does have things going on in her own life, she's not just a cardboard cutout racist or Islamophobic person. At first, before Bilal announced he wanted to build a mosque, I didn't like her in an enjoyable way - she was the character I loved to hate. She was so judgemental, I could imagine her disdainfully sniffing at how other people live their lives in a way she doesn't agree with. She has an opinion on almost everything, and she has a very "holier than thou" attitude. And Malik wrote her in a way that I couldn't help but laugh at her, because she was just so ridiculous. But then Bilal announces his intentions, and Shelley goes from laughable to absolutely disgusting. And oh my god, she had me raging, along with everyone who agreed with her. Whenever something controversial happens on Twitter and people of colour are giving a teachable moment, I've often read someone say, "I didn't call you a racist, I said what you did/said was racist." Us white people can screw up because of our privilege and not actually realise what we have said/done was racist, without actually being a racist person. I was hoping this was the case for Shelley, but it wasn't. While she genuinely believes she's not racist or Islamophobic, she is. She is an awful, awful woman. While there are things that she wouldn't do or say, or the actions and words of others that she doesn't agree with, and finds quite horrifying, she's still disgusting. And I am amazed that Malik spent the amount of time it took to write this book with this character, and wrote her with patience and kindness. Writing a character who treats people like yourself terribly, and also humanising her, giving her own story, have readers feel for her, despite the awful things she does... it's amazing, and I'm in awe of Malik for being able to write such a character and have us try to understand her when she's so vile.

'A quiet discomfort lingered in her. She wasn't a racist - heavens! She had, after all, rather taken to Bilal's wife, despite her monochrome clothes. (That was until Shelley discovered that Mariam still referred to herself as 'Ms', For Shelley this was dithering under the guise of feminism, and if there was one thing she couldn't abide, it was dithering.) No, it had nothing to do with the Hashams' skin colour. It was the unknown. Unknown people harboured unknown ideas. And ideas could be a dangerous thing.' (24%)

'"Won't you even look at how many more names there are on the petition?" she said.
"I understand people are upset but--"
"What'll be next? Maybe a Muslim-only school?" Shelley's now high-pitched voice reverberated in the church. "And pardon me for saying, but at least Mariam doesn't wear one of those scarves. Can the same be said for the type of people who'll want to visit?"
"You object to them?"
"Well, no, it's a free country, but you understand that kind of thing can make a person feel
uncomfortable."
"Does her aunt?" Richard asked.
Shelley paused, as if recalibrating her thoughts. "I'm sure we all seem very closed-minded, but in this day and age it takes some bravery to say exactly what's on one's mind."'
(53%)

Yes, she has her own story, and yes she forms this meaningful friendship with Rukhsana, who is just wonderful, but I'm afraid I just can't forgive her for the things she says and does. But I do need to talk about their friendship. Despite my feelings towards Shelley, their friendship was really quite sweet. Neither woman can really understand the other - not until Rukhsana starts to learn English - but it's the language barrier that makes their friendship work; both women are able to confide in the other, able to say things out loud that they have never said to anyone before, but it's ok, because the other woman doesn't actually know what she's saying. But both women understand tone and body language, so while they may not know exactly what the other is talking about, they know sadness when they see it, and just being understood means so much to these women. It was surprising how much they needed each other, but it was really quite beautiful. But probably mostly because of Rukhsana, who is probably my favourite character. She has such a unique way of seeing things - especially when she doesn't understand what's being said a lot of the time - and she's so kind, and so compassionate, and so generous. Because Bilal, Mariam, and Haaris call her Khala, which means aunt, most people think that's her name, and so call her Khala. Bilal tries to correct them, but Rukhsana says they can call her Khala, it's fine. She's just the sweetest, most loveliest of characters, and her character arc was wonderful; her discovering the beauty of Babbel's End, making friends, finding some happiness. Mate, I just love her.

This book had me raging, laughing out loud, and it broke my heart. And it's also a really important book. I really think it really shines a lot on - or rather, holds a mirror up to - white people's thoughts and behaviour, but make it really obvious that it's not ok. Of course, we should all know this already, but for some people, I think reading this book and recognising their own thoughts/behaviour might just make things click for them, and finally see what everyone has been saying for so long. And given that there are some villagers are on Bilal's side, there are those forcing the awful characters, and readers, to see and confront their bigotry.

But despite the serious and important topics covered, This Green and Pleasant Land is a really heart-warming and special story. It moved me beyond words, and is one I'll be thinking about for a very long time. I absolutely want This Green and Pleasant Land to become a TV series, and have already been dream-casting the characters. This is book is powerful and wonderful, and I implore everyone to read it.

You might also like:

Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed The Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Over to you graphic

Have you read any adult contemporary novels that deal with important issues? What books have you read that look at Islamophobia? Will you be reading This Green and Pleasant Land? Let me know in the comments!
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1 comment:

  1. This is quite a way out of the genres I usually like to read but it sounds like a great story (and highly relevant). I can imagine myself shaking the book in frustration at Shelley...

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