A former intelligence officer stands accused of terrorism, held without charge in a secret overseas prison. His memoir is in the hands of a brilliant but erratic psychologist who has an agenda of her own, and her 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. Jihadi: A Love Story is an intelligent thriller that asks big questions.
I have been looking forward to reading Jihadi ever since I heard that Orenda Books had agreed to publish it, despite knowing very little about it beyond that striking, likely controversial, title. I expected to be challenged by it and anticipated that the divisive and destructive Western narrative about Islam would be challenged as well. I probably also quite enjoyed the prospect of supporters of that narrative having their hackles raised by a controversial interrogation of their rhetoric.
But having now read it, what I love about Yusuf Toropov’s novel is that the reality of his challenge is not rooted in more confrontation but rather in understanding and as a result he has maybe revealed to this reader a little of the true nature of a much maligned religion.
There is also no sign of preaching, Toropov does not beat you over the head with his message but rather blends it seamlessly into the beautifully written narrative of an entertaining, heartbeat quickening, page turner. Jihadi is not a manifesto. It is a top class debut novel that tells an exciting and engaging story about people caught up in crazy situations. It is painfully relevant at this particular moment in time, but whilst that makes it an urgent read it should not detract from the fact that it is also a rollicking good one.
The empathy that the author shows to all of the book’s characters is exquisitely realised and ensures that the reader builds a relationship with each of them, whether they like them or not. In a novel that could well be greeted with a broad spectrum of reactions and which deals with people who in the global media are portrayed as separate and divided, this is crucial. Whatever a character does, and some of those things are horrific to contemplate, they are not reduced to those actions, they remain human.
So what we end up with is a genuine thriller that excites and enthrals but also calls out for us to think. We can sleepwalk through all of the meaningless distractions that modern life wants to throw at us, we can be overwhelmed by the decisions taken far above our heads by powers that we feel wholly unable to influence or we can try to the best of our ability to consciously walk a path that leads to truth and justice, with hope.
In the same way that I have enjoyed reading the likes of Kati Hiekkapelto deliver powerful social commentary within first rate crime novels, it is exciting to find Yusuf, and publishing stable mate Paul Hardisty, elevating the thriller genre to a new level of provoking intelligence. This is the first novel I have read in 2016 but I cannot imagine that I will read a better one all year.
|Yusuf Toropov is an American Muslim writer. He’s the author or co-author of a number of nonfiction books, includingShakespeare for Beginners. His full-length play An Undivided Heart was selected for a workshop production at the National Playwrights Conference, and his one-act playThe 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 currently lives in Northern Ireland.|
Jihadi: A Love Story is available now as an e-book and will be published in paperback in February 2016.