Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Book Notes: Sorrows of the Moon by Iqbal Ahmed

As long as there have been glitzy travel guides to the tourist-traps of London, there have been alternative books published which seek to expose the 'other' side of the city. Huge quantities of ink have been spilt describing everything from Windsor in the West, St Paul's in the centre, The Tower to the East, to Greenwich further out; but writers from Pepys to Dickens have also published works revealing the dark underbelly of London. Their London is one of pickpockets, alleys, criminals, and dark goings-on, every bit as much as it is about the great affairs of state which continue in parallel. Edward Platt's astonishing Leadville - 'a biography of the A40' continues in this tradition reflecting on the interactions between those with power and those affected by their decisions. The focus of his study is the planners and the effect they have on the changing communities of the A40 - westway into London.

All these great books have a common thread though; they are written by people for whom London is home. Sorrows of the Moon however is billed as a journey through London written from the perspective of someone born in Kashmir, as he tries to make a home in London. As such he comes to the table of 'London books' with fresh eyes, alert to different things than I would notice if I was to walk through the streets he describes. It is this perspective that makes this book worth reading.

Contrary to the cover blurb, this book is not wonderfully written (for all the accolades heaped upon it) at times the language is staid and repetitive. What makes this book arresting is the author's powers of observation, which are powerful and perceptive in that he does not bombard the reader with unnecessary detail; but manages to select intriguing atmosphere-building details to enhance his descriptions of the ordinary people he meets across London. His encounters with landlords, businessmen, taxi-drivers, refugees, doormen, sewing machine operators in Brick Lane and middle-class London in Hampstead are fascinating.

What makes the book dark is that Ahmed finds much of what he encounters to be oppressive, empty and soul-less and lonely, as are many of the people he meets. It's this sense of being an outsider so effectively expressed that makes this book valuable. Here's a short extract:

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