Shiny Prize Season – A Flat Place by Noreen Masud – Women’s Prize for Non-Fiction

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Reviewed by Simon Thomas

The world is probably divided into two people: those who find the idea of a book about flat landscapes appealing and those who don’t. I suspect I’d have been in the latter category, if that was all that Noreen Masud’s book ended up being about. And that (as she explains in the notes in the end) was the initial premise. Flat landscapes had been dominant in much of her life, from the expansive fields of Lahore, Pakistan, where she grew up, to Ely, Orkney, Newcastle and other places she has lived or ventured in search of flatness.

At some point, though, the thinking behind A Flat Place developed. I’m so glad it did. Masud’s own experiences became much more central, and her persistent longing for flat places interweaves with a difficult legacy – particularly cPTSD, complex post-traumatic stress disorder (more on that shortly). It was a choice that turns A Flat Place into a truly extraordinary memoir – honest, vulnerable and deeply thoughtful.

As Noreen is quick to point out, her experiences in childhood are not shared by all Pakistani people, or all Pakistani girls brought up in a Muslim household. Her father didn’t want Noreen or her sisters to leave the house or engage with neighbours. She saw so little of life outside of her English-speaking school that she wasn’t even fluent in Urdu. And while her father wasn’t ferociously violent, she describes with aching exactness what it feels like to grow up in a house of fear and tension. Not always in detail – there are many things that she cannot remember, and has no wish to unearth. There are other things that perhaps she does remember, but deliberately obscures in the telling. But it is enough for us to begin to grasp the long reach throughout her adult life – after she was disowned by her father and came to the UK with her Scottish-born mother, studied English literature and became an academic.

The only life I knew was hot and dirty and crowded, bodies pressed against each other: oil sizzling, loud music on my grandmother’s TV, my uncles arguing. Between fourteen and twenty-five people lived in my house in Lahore at any one time, coming and going. So did, at various times, rabbits, goats, chickens, geese, budgies, dogs, cats, turkeys, peacocks, chicks and parrots. My father had his own bedroom; the rest of us – my mother, me and three sisters – lived in another, piling over each, shouting and fighting in hushed voices so as not to wake him while he slept. There was nowhere to run.

Much of A Flat Place is about these childhood experiences, but there is also a great deal about her travels around the UK in search of flatness. Like many people, I am drawn to views with mountains, hills, and variety, but Noreen Masud explains poetically what it is that draws her to flat landscapes – the refuge she can find in them, the sense of identifying with them. Here, she is writing about the fens in Cambridgeshire:

But I knew that, here, there was no right or wrong way to look. I could just be with the landscape, be in it. And because the landscape was the same for miles and miles, I could give it the time it needed. I didn’t have to ‘take it all in’ at once. I could let it seep slowly into me as I walked. I could get to know it, like a dear friend, over a long time, rather the forcing a sudden overwhelming intimacy which couldn’t be sustained.

It is too detailed and thoughtful an exploration to summarise with one quote or paraphrase, but I thought she handled a complex, almost metaphysical element to the memoir with adeptness. Many of her readers won’t be able to connect with her experiences, either in her upbringing or in her adult life, but she bridges that divide beautifully.

Complex PTSD is, I learn, difficult to diagnose – difficult to recognise in oneself, and difficult to convey to others. PTSD usually relates to one, or a few, traumatic experiences and periods. CPTSD is different:

It was particularly difficult to treat, because – like a flat landscape – it didn’t offer a significant landmark, an event, that you could focus on and work with. Complex post-traumatic stress, according to the psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman, is the result of ‘prolonged, repeated trauma’, rather than individual traumatic events. It’s what happens when you’re born into a world, shaped by a world, where there’s no safety, ever. When the people who should take care of you are, instead, scary and unreliable, and when you live years and years without the belief that escape is possible.

Another strand to A Flat Place is Noreen Masud’s responses to the racism that is deeply woven into British life and history – partly the shambolic history of the British role in dividing India and Pakistan, but also the ways in which the experiences of Pakistani people are considered less significant than those of white British people. This comes to a head during the pandemic lockdown, where people became deeply agitated over experiences that they took for granted were acceptable in another country, for another people.

I had to bite my mouth to stop myself from being unkind. Because I knew which children mattered and which didn’t. What children in other countries were expected to endure as standard parts of life – cramped conditions, imprisonment, periods of separation from loved ones – must not be tolerated for British children; unlike their counterparts abroad, they are fragile, precious, capable of infinite sophisticated development.

I’ve only touched the surface of the many themes and accounts that Noreen Masud manages to combine so elegantly and wisely into A Flat Place. Among the most moving, to me, were the sections where her mother asked if they could travel to Orkney together – their time together is shared with such candour, without trying to come to any smooth conclusions about what their relationship has been, is now, or could be.

This is not a misery memoir, nor is it a tale of overcoming adversity and reaching perfection – it is an exploration, and a continuing one. I love memoirs that incorporate unusual lenses for exploration of the self, and flat places is an ambitious one – the ambition more than pays off. A Flat Place is something special.

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Simon is a co-founder and editor-at-large of Shiny.

Noreen Masud, A Flat Place (Hamish Hamilton, 2023).  978-0241544051, 243pp., hardback.

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