This is one of the best books I’ve read in ages. No, that’s not a spoiler for the review, it’s just a fact. I got it as part of my ABoS box, and it was the best of the books in the box. I left it til last, because it was chunky and was physically the biggest of the books. But also because I’d heard of the author, and so it was kind of the most ‘known’ factor.
Brief non-spoilery synopsis
The novel tells the story of Bilal, a Muslim man who lives in an idyllic English village, as he navigates belonging and community spirit. On her deathbed, his mother charges him to build a mosque in Babel’s End, the village, which causes drastic alarm to the parish council and even his own wife, Mariam. Their aunt comes from Birmingham to join the family, and further complicates how they relate to the other members of the small community. Following several islamophobic issues and some accidental youtube virality, the town is brought together unexpectedly on a Christmas mission.
The biggest theme throughout the book is the challenge of belonging or otherness, thrown into stark relief when Bilal surprises himself by taking up his mother’s challenge, to the not-so-subtle horror of some members of the village. The central discussion of what it means to be British – what it means to belong – is at the core of the book; how Bilal (called ‘Bill’ by some people in the village) initially conforms, but then realises he needs to negotiate an identity with himself that doesn’t neglect who he is in favour of fitting in. “This green and pleasant land”, the book’s title, is a nod to William Blake’s poem, Jerusalem, later turned into the Women’s Institute anthem, basically a hallmark of small-town English village life. When held in tension (or is it tension) with the mosque image on the cover, you really have the core conflict of the book.
Death is another major theme in the book, particularly as it motivates characters to consider their religious practice, cultural experience, and coping with life, the universe and everything. Bilal’s mother, before her death, dug herself a grave in her back garden in Birmingham, and used to lie in it. Bilal does this when trying to figure out how to progress with his mosque project. Weird, but definitely an interesting way to introduce the conflict about the characters’ dealing with death.
Related to both the death theme and the theme of belonging, religion is shot through the book. Bilal and his family navigate being Muslim and ‘other’, but even the village’s Christians have religiously-based internal conflict about what it means to be Christian and how to deal with loss and death. Most of the characters battle with their experience of belief and religion, both how it sustains in the face of adversity, and how a modern practice is often really challenging, and sometimes feels inadequate. Richard, the local vicar, is a good contrasting character to Bilal (not really a foil, though I did type that first), in that he represents a devout Christian perspective, but demonstrates that it’s not all smooth sailing for him either. His support for Bilal’s mosque balances him against the other parish do-gooders, who campaign in a particularly unchristian way against the erasure of “English values”.
Why I liked it so much
It was heartwarming, challenging, and gives me a sense of familiarity, while at the same time, making me recognise my lack of knowledge around what it means to be British and Asian. The book also has some relatability for me as an immigrant to the UK finding her way in a culture that’s kind of been held up as an aspirational target (South Africa was also a colony, and there is definitely still a bit of a cultural ideal held up that has its roots in ‘Englishness’ (TM) ); but I know I don’t have an additional axis to understand the discrimination experienced by Bilal and his family, because I’m white and Christian. The text considers what it means to be British, through the life of the very British Bilal. It brings through personal and emotive themes around belief and relationships, dealing with grief, loss and identity. So so rich. Malik’s light touch and characterisation makes it super readable and engaging.
Best book I’ve read in a long time.
I’m going to try to find Malik’s other book, Sofia Khan is not Obliged, and put it high on my TBR list.