This green and pleasant land | Ayisha Malik

I like Ayisha Malik. She’s a regular and entertaining contributor on the Red Hot Chilli Writers podcast, which I always enjoy, so I thought I’d check out her fiction. I couldn’t bring myself to attempt either of her first books, marketed as the Muslim Bridget Jones (Bridget Jones being the off-putting factor, just to be clear), but she’s moved on from chick-lit for This green and pleasant land. Also it has a nice blurb by Jonathan Coe, who I adore.

So with those positives lined up, I was braced for certain disappointment.

But hang on, no – it’s actually quite good. There are memorable characters, a solid story, humour, pathos, truisms about life, death, relationships, faith, home, change etc. Lots of boxes ticked. What would have made it really good rather than quite good would be reducing the word count by at least a third. It’s just too long. What are editors afraid of these days? Which part of EDIT don’t they get? Why do stories that can be told in 250 pages so often bloat into 400? Do editors secretly get paid per published word now? Don’t they know how long my TBR is??    

This is the kind of pointless verbal overload I mean:

Bilal attempted a smile, but his mouth was dry, his lips stuck to his teeth ‘I realise it’s a bit out of the blue…’

The vocal tremors of mistrust were already beginning, echoing in the hall as well as in the spaces of Bilal’s thumping heart.

Shelley gave a tight smile as the evening sun washed her face with its light. ‘A mosque?’ she asked.

So we have an attempted smile, a tight smile, a dry mouth, stuck lips, vocal tremors, a thumping heart, and light falling on a face. Enough! I want good dialogue, not a morse code of grimaces. None of this padding progresses the narrative, develops character, or brings anything to the party at all; it’s needless slow-motion over-narrated ploddage. I’m actually fine with a quick ‘He said, she said’ – it’s usually how conversations work in real life, after all. Either that or some proper interiority, just anything but a catalogue of facial tics, please. It’s not just this particular author either, it’s stupidly common in contemporary fiction, and it Really Annoys Me, in case that wasn’t clear. (I would also have culled the minor characters, who are also too numerous and too often there for messaging or balance, of which I am equally intolerant.)

(I’m also aware of the irony of this lengthy rant about lengthy books.)

Anyway, the story. The endearingly timid central character Bilal, or Bill for the purposes of assimilation in Middle England, is ordered by his mother on her death-bed to build a mosque in his picturesque monocultural village where nothing ever changes. Needless to say, this idea goes down like a lead balloon with the locals, and his reluctant quest to fulfil his mother’s dying wish forms the main plot. Although a well-liked and thoroughly innocuous chap, his plan becomes a lightning rod for both ‘normal’ prejudices and outright anti-Muslim hostility. His humdrum life is thrown into turmoil, his wife wants to leave him, and he is plagued by existential despair and indigestion.  

At the same time, his mother’s sister comes to visit, and for me aunty Rukhsana was the real star. Everyone in the book has a journey, and hers is the most surprising and affecting. There’s quite a lot that’s ho-hum about this novel – the writing is fairly ordinary, and it lacks tension and pace for the aforementioned reasons – but there are some wonderful touches and the unfurling of this loveable character is definitely one. Her outsider’s view of the village and its conflicts gives the novel much greater emotional depth and social-observation nuance. I admit I’m always going to be more engaged by a solo middle-aged woman making a new life for herself story than domestic dramas or marital crises. But Rukhsana’s gradual development elevated the book from gently satirical culture-clash village tale to a moving and insightful work. I’m still not going to bother with Ayisha Malik’s first two novels, however if she writes more like this, but giving her wit freer rein, allowing more bite to her satire, developing her aptitude for character and using fewer words I’ll definitely be interested.