This Green and Pleasant Land by Ayisha Malik
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This Green and Pleasant Land is a beautiful take on the subtle and not-so-subtle racism that the Muslim community faces in Britain.
Bilal, a British-Pakistani, moves to the tiny village of Babbel's End to get away from the Pakistani community in Birmingham. All he wants is to fit in and be like everyone else, and he manages to do just that until the fateful day he decides to fulfil his mother's dying wish: to build a mosque in Babbel's End. With that one request, the people he has called friends and neighbours for the past eight years draw their battle lines, showing him their true faces: that they can only be friends if he totally repudiates his culture and his faith.
It's a very clever book. It's both very British and yet very Asian (at least, I relate to it in a multicultural, diaspora, Malaysian kind of way). It takes a hard look at the British's superiority complex, white fragility, racism, and colonialism, yet also leaves a space to air their concerns. Ayisha doesn't pull punches. Right from the start, she compares the building of this mosque to the work of Christian missionaries in foreign lands, telling Bilal that Babbel's End is his Africa (even though he doesn't want to convert anyone, he hasn't thought that far ahead).
My favourite character (and I rarely have any favourites) is Bilal's aunt, Rukhsana, who's referred to as Khala (aunt) even by people who are older than her, mostly because they keep thinking it's her name no matter how many times Bilal explains. With her terrible understanding of English and her kind and generous heart, Khala Rukhsana sets out to conquer Babbel's End, softening the heart of even Bilal's strongest enemy, Shelley Hawking, parish council chairwoman and churchwarden. Actually, she just sets out to make friends and understand this weird goya village she finds herself in now that she's staying with her nephew. And maybe feed them more zarda and wish them happiness.
All in all, Ayisha manages to tell a complex story about a very sensitive issue without casting anyone as an outright villain just for villainy's sake, highlighting instead the complexity and the nuances around religion, culture, and community. Unless, of course, you're a fragile white supremacist, in which case, you wouldn't enjoy this book.
After all these good bits, why only 4-stars though? Um, mainly because the jumping between POVs was a little jarring for me and took a while to get used to.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from Bonnier Zaffre via Netgalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.
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