Bhutto’s second novel explores Islamist extremism and its roots in class divides through the stories of young people.
The narration of this novel switches among the points of view of three characters representing different socio-economic groups. Anita Rose lives in a Karachi slum with her mother, Zenobia, and brother, Ezra. The family subsists on Zenobia’s earnings as a masseuse until Ezra advances their lot through what all evidence points to as organized crime. Anita befriends Osama, an elderly neighbor, who imparts to her an enthusiasm for leftist ideology and Urdu poetry. First seen at his family’s London pied-à-terre, Monty is the cosseted son of a Karachi real estate mogul. British-born Sunny, ne Salman, has disappointed his middle-class father’s expectations for him in Portsmouth, England, where “Pa” had immigrated from his native Lucknow with high hopes of seamless assimilation. Now, instead of pursuing a business degree, Sunny falls under the spell of his charismatic cousin Oz, recently returned from a jihadi camp in Syria. These are all, in a sense, narratives of exile and renunciation, and their poignancy is deepened by the characters’ inner struggles. At 17, Anita has reinvented herself—at the elite private school she attends, thanks to Ezra—as the ineffably cool “Layla.” Her romance with her classmate Monty, who adores her, is overshadowed by his privilege. Layla will become a jihadi influencer whose videos inspire adherents of the ISIS-like Ummah Movement. Her transition from promising student to outlaw is linked—we won’t immediately learn how—to a fateful trip to Dubai at Ezra’s behest. Sunny forswears his passion for music to join Ummah in Mosul, and he and Monty, who has joined to search for Layla, are sent on a mission. Their internet access, even on a trek across the desert, proves to be more curse than blessing. In fact, social media exposures—some a little too conveniently timed—are a major driver of plot twists here.
An astute and searing take on anomie and radicalization.