Reviewed by Annabel
Many of you will recognise Meike Ziervogel as the founder of Peirene Press; we’ve reviewed several of their novella length books in Shiny New Books (here and here for example). Meike Ziervogel is not just a publisher of short novels, she also writes them herself. Her first, Magda, imagined the mother and daughter relationships of Magda Goebbels as daughter, then mother herself, then came Clara’s Daughter, a contemporary story of an elderly mother and daughter relationship set against the daughter’s crumbling marriage. Her third, although also about a daughter, is different again.
As a German, if writing Magda was brave, then her new novel, Kauthar, the story of a white British girl who converts to Islam, shows even greater courage and daring in taking on a taboo subject. She tells her protagonist’s story with true insight, and gives a glimpse into the mind of a girl searching for spiritual meaning and being attracted to the different kinds of freedom proffered by a life bound in rules and ritual, and the consequences that can happen when they are subverted.
Ziervogel does, however, write from a position of some experience: able to read and write in Arabic, she studied Arabic Literature at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London, and through a friendship with a German convert to Islam was attracted to the faith herself. In an article in the Daily Telegraph, she describes her own fascination as she explored what becoming a Muslim might be like, but stepped back from going further.
After a flash-forward prologue, the novel begins as Kauthar meets Rafiq, the Iraqi doctor who will become her husband, who has watched her and waited, who calls out to her:
…‘I would like to marry you.’
On the road a black cab drives past. I put my left foot forward. Then I stop. But I don’t turn around. Lydia would have laughed out loud now. No man with serious intentions chats up a woman on the street in the middle of London. No sane man asks a woman he has never met before to marry him. This man must be backward in some way. He has picked up the phrase, knows roughly in which context to use it, but has no idea of its emotional connotations. Basically, a little boy who is playing his games – cowboys and Indians, for example. And he chooses a bride and takes her into his tent.
This last thought of cowboys and Indians takes us nicely back to Lydia’s childhood and those little boys obsessed with guns and willies, while she is swinging on the monkey bars wanting to be Nadia Comăneci, the Romanian gymnast who scored a perfect ten.
The text of the first chapter continues in alternating bursts, following Kauthar’s steps towards marrying Rafiq, then Lydia who, realising she’ll never be a champion gymnast and rather ignored by her parents, turns initially towards Christianity.
As the story progresses, we find out why and how Lydia ‘returns’ to Shia Islam in adulthood and becomes Kauthar, happily married to Rafiq. But the terrorist attacks of 9/11 change everything for them. When Rafiq returns to Iraq to work, Kauthar follows, only to find that life there has a different set of rules and expectations that will try her devoutness. In emotional turmoil, she turns to God, but the distorted answers she finds set her on an extreme path.
The imagery is strong; I enjoyed the similarities between the sequences of movements in gymnastics and the ritual of Islamic prayer in which, again, every move has a purpose. This grounding ritual is important to Kauthar, and she frequently describes the calming qualities of the physical side of prayer.
As in Magda, Meike Ziervogel is able to show compassion for her subject without condoning the acts her beliefs and radicalisation lead her to. By taking us into the protagonist’s mind, we can begin to comprehend some of the psychological pressures upon her even if forgiveness isn’t possible.
Told in the present tense, the author’s calm command of language and pace generates a subtle tension that makes the story all the more disturbing. Exploiting almost a stream of consciousness style in parts, it is immediate and literally unputdownable. Kauthar may be a one-sitting novel, but its subject matter will stay with you long after the book is read.
Meike Ziervogel, Kauthar (Salt: London, 2015). 9781784630294, 160 pp., paperback original.
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