The Boy at the Back of the Class (Onjali Q. Rauf)
This is a children’s book – and I don’t often talk about children’s books – but I genuinely believe that all adults should read this story because it packs such a huge empathy punch that people of all ages would benefit from it.
The story revolves around Ahmet, a nine-year-old boy who has just joined a class in a London school. He actually doesn’t say very much throughout the book because he doesn’t yet speak English, so we get to know him through the eyes of one of his classmates – our narrator – whose curiosity little by little reveals his story to us. We find out that Ahmet is a refugee, recently arrived in the UK after a hellish journey undertaken to escape war and in the hope of reaching safety.
Through the eyes of the children in the book we observe the adults’ reactions to Ahmet – some kind and others really quite vicious – and through their innocence they show the importance of kindness and the cruelty of prejudice.
I love everything about this book: the plot, with plenty of twists to keep us readers on our toes, and the writing, which is excellent – I don’t know how Onjali managed to capture the way a child talks and sees the world, but she did it perfectly and skilfully. And her warmth shines through the pages, leaving a glow of kindness that will last long after you close the book.
This Green and Pleasant Land (Ayisha Malik)
With the lightest of touches this book shows how disconcerting and soul-destroying it is to live in a place where, somehow – no matter how hard you try or what a nice person you are – you are never quite accepted because of your background.
Bilal is our main character and he lives in the chocolate-box perfect village of Babel’s End. On the surface his life is a complete success: solid career as an accountant, wife is a local journalist, lovely son, gorgeous house and an impressive network of friendships in the community. All that gets thrown into disarray, though, on his mother’s deathbed, when her last wish is for him to build a mosque in his village, where the current Muslim population totals three people: his family.
His plans are quickly dashed as soon as they come into contact with the mighty power of the local parish council, but why should he have to hide his religion – something that’s important to him – and force himself to blend in, just to please some members of his village?
From there the story unfolds: Bilal is pushed to the limits, as he begins to witness the backlash against his proposal and how fickle some of the friendships he thought he could rely on turn out to be. It's heartbreaking to witness his disenchantment as he’s forced to ask himself some difficult questions: a meek sort of character, who’d have done anything for a quiet life, Bilal finally finds his voice and begins to question everything about his life and what it means to feel that you belong somewhere. With razor-sharp humour and an exquisite writing style, Ayisha tackles weighty topics in a seemingly light-hearted, but actually really thought-provoking, way.
The Carer (Deborah Moggach)
At its centre, this story is quite straightforward: James, an elderly man – a brilliant academic in his younger days – recently bereaved needs some help, as his health has been deteriorating and his children (Robert and Phoebe) live at a distance which make occasional visit convenient but day-to-day, hands-on care difficult. Enter Mandy, the most unlikely of heroines: dull and plain-looking, she doesn’t particularly shine in this new set-up, but she cheerily takes on the daily chores, no matter how burdensome.
The chapters alternate between narrators and initially the lion’s share is taken by the two siblings, Robert and Phoebe. As readers, we can empathise with their conflicting feelings towards this carer: the relief they felt when Mandy settled into her role, meaning that they wouldn’t have to uproot their lives to look after their father, is tempered by a nagging guilt that they are somehow not fulfilling their filial duty.
Mandy is initially quite enigmatic and this makes them suspicious, a sentiment fuelled by their resentment about her slowly becoming the centre of their dad’s world. There are plenty of twists and turns in this story, which kept me guessing right until the end; feelings run high and the reality of what it means to grow old is exposed in all its rawness. A sense of duty, family bonds, disappointments, love and guilt are just some of the messy and complicated feelings explored in the story, as well as what it means to rely on the kindness of others.