665 pages, Faber & Faber
Review by Marc Nash
This is a brilliant book, but an impossible one to recommend. Dealing with the negatives first, its subject matter includes rape, forced prostitution, castration, slavery and racism, which straight away mean it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea. And yet the book also has so much praise.
Set in the desert kingdom of Wannatolia, a curious blend of medieval Muslim Sultanate and modern cityscape (with an environmentalist subtheme), a young girl is given into early forced marriage. But her husband is murdered and she is sold into slavery, eventually ending up in the Sultan's harem. However while caged in the slave market, she protects an abandoned dark skinned child. Their tentative relationship is well detailed, as these two people with no status forge an existence on the margins of society. They are two children having to function as adults, and their vulnerability in the face of their tough environment and to each other is rather touching. When they are split asunder as the girl is snatched and taken to the harem, we follow both their stories, through various tragedies and smaller triumphs, until they are reunited as very different beings indeed for their experiences.
I'm unsure as to whether this story, swooping between brutality and minor reassertions of the goodness of the human spirit as it does, works. The lurches from one emotional pole to the other leaves the reader concussed and bruised. I'm also curious as to how a Muslim reader would find the text, freely quoting the Qu'ran and the Hadiths, while demonstrating an unpalatable moral world of harems, slavery and abuse, ineluctably tied to a State run along Islamic lines.
But for me the beauty of the book, and there really is great creative and aesthetic beauty contained within all the narrative ugliness, is in the graphic art itself. It is here that the Islamic setting really comes to the fore, since one of the book's main themes is that of Arabic calligraphy. Thompson uses the fluid form of the Arabic script to blend with other fluid images, that of water, blood, potions, tree foliage, the venous system, animals and djinn. The graphic representation throws up some wonderful images throughout, harnessing the non-realistic style of the book.
So, undoubtedly a work of huge merit. But can I commend it to you unreservedly? No, I'm afraid I can't. Think of this review as representing a content warning and make your own judgment.