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by Parker Bilal
Bloomsbury, February 2013
400 pages
11.99 GBP
ISBN: 1408827859

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Parker Bilal, as he showed in his previous Makana novel, has a rare talent for putting the reader immediately in place. Here we have all the grubbiness and squalor of pre-Arab Spring Cairo that the tourists do not see - the smell of drains, the dirt and pollution from the uncontrolled traffic filling the streets, the sordid eating places where detergent flavoured coffee is almost reassuring. When Makana throws away a scrap of chicken five cats appear from nowhere to fight for it. Competition for employment on the streets is uncompromising and even young children, of whom fifty thousand are homeless, are prepared to risk breaking the law to earn what they can. Living conditions are appalling and, without any regard for safety, unscrupulous landlords pile additional floors on buildings until they crash to the ground.

Most people have no access to modern labour saving devices and young couples wander through an electrical goods store 'their faces set with expressions of awe more akin to visitors at a museum displaying the treasures of past civilizations'. There is little or no belief in the ability of politicians to bring about change and the government is disliked almost as much as Americans and Israelis. Mokana, himself a refugee from Sudan, thinks of Cairo as 'a city that wriggled out of every definition you cared to throw at it'.

It is 2001 and, as if life in the city were not sufficiently intolerable, there have been a number of murders of young homeless boys. The fact that they are all Muslims is leading to suspicion of the Coptic Christians and there are those who wish to inflame this religious bigotry. Makana is hired by Faragalla, the Egyptian owner of a tourist agency, to investigate a rather puzzling letter he has received which appears to be threatening his life. It isn't long before Makana realizes that, whatever the letter means, it is threatening not Faragalla's life but someone else's.

During the course of the investigation Makana becomes friendly with Meera, the wife of a university professor now reduced to working as a clerk following political machinations that led to her husband's losing his job. He witnesses an assassination and, aware that it is related to the original investigation, he goes looking for answers, finding himself not only in the back streets of Cairo, but also in Luxor and the desert itself. The plot becomes dark and violent and one particularly horrific incident is described in some detail. The Egyptian security services, as well as the police, are involved in the search for the assassin - an indication that politics and big business are behind it and Makana is clearly in danger as he gets closer to an understanding of what is going on.

The fact that Makana is very much a loner, a man who has lost everything he loved, adds a certain poignancy to his situation. His honesty and determination to find the truth make him a very attractive character and his investigation is followed with great attention. The minor characters too appear very real, though it has to be said that there are a large number of them and occasional backtracking may be required if the book is read over a period of time. The other main characters Meera and the Coptic priest, Macarius are very well drawn. The climax, when it comes, is thrilling and unpredictable but totally convincing.

Arnold Taylor is a retired Examinations Board Officer, amateur writer and even more amateur bridge player.

Reviewed by Arnold Taylor, January 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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