The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan

Review published on April 10, 2017.

Inspector Esa Khattak, a second-generation Canadian Muslim, has been promoted to head Canada’s newly formed Community Policing Section, which has its headquarters in Toronto. Its remit is rather vague but has its roots in a perceived need to respond to an increasing shift to the right in Canadian politics and, seen from a rather cynical point of view, could maybe be a something of a “fig leaf”, there to counter any accusation of bias towards minority groups, particularly Muslims. Although he recognised the nature of his appointment, he relished the opportunity to select his own team, with his first choice being his previous partner, Sergeant Rachel Getty, a young woman he regarded as the best officer he had ever worked with.

One evening, as he is kneeling on his prayer rug, his evening prayers are interrupted by his telephone ringing. The call is from his friend Tom Paley, chief historian at the Department of Justice, who asks him to investigate the death of a wealthy businessman, Christopher Drayton, whose body was found on the shore following his fall from the cliffs near his home. Esa wonders why this apparent accident is seen as a job for his department but when his friend offers an explanation, he realises that he is about to embark on an investigation that will be both complex and highly sensitive, will bring back many painful memories for him and will frequently test his objectivity. As he finishes his prayers he feels glad that he will be able to rely on the clear-sighted support of Rachel. As the investigation progresses it soon becomes clear that, as Drayton’s past comes to light, there is no shortage of people who had the motivation to kill him.

From the opening sentence of this complex story, which links an investigation into a man’s sudden death with the Bosnian War and the massacre in Srebrenica in 1995, I felt immersed in the author’s eloquent and quietly powerful writing. All the sub-plots and their gradual resolutions were convincing and so too were each of the characters – some of whom I grew very fond of and some of whom I really disliked – especially Melanie Blessant, Drayton’s gold-digging fiancée! I thought that the main characters, Esa and Rachel, were particularly well drawn, and that the relationship between two seemingly very different personalities worked in a convincing way. He older, “urbane, soft-spoken, respectful and decisive”, and very comfortable in his religious faith; she rather “boxy and square-shouldered” and unconcerned about her appearance, inclined to be rather direct in her interactions but also capable of great sensitivity. However, what they share, in addition to a commitment to seeking truth and justice for victims, is a profound sense of personal loss. Although this is, for the most part, unspoken and unshared between them, the reader gradually learns more about their personal backgrounds, what motivates their need for resolutions, and why their relationship works so well.

This is a story about revenge and retribution, loss, the power of love, redemption and the need for justice, for both the living and the dead. However, it also examines the complexities of the notion of justice, and whether it can always be achieved by following the strict letter of the law. Each of the chapters in the book starts with quotes from testimonies heard during the War Crimes Tribunal held following the Bosnian War. There were times when these made me weep because of what they revealed, not only of the terrible things human beings are capable of, but also of the courage and hope which they represented in the face of truly monstrous treatment and experiences. However, it wasn’t until I reached the end of the book that I discovered that there are comprehensive notes from the author at the back that explain the origin of each of the quotes. I think it is a shame that there is no indication at the start of the book that they are there because they would have added an extra depth to my reading and to the developing story.

The author’s background as a human rights lawyer, with a specialisation in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans, enabled her to write with authority and powerful clarity on the genocide of Bosnian Muslims, especially in the Srebrenica massacre, as well as about the destruction of centuries of cultural heritage. This genocide is described as “Europe’s greatest tragedy since the Second World War”, a time when UN forces turned their backs on the Muslims and, by doing so, enabled the Bosnian Serbs to continue with the horrors of their rape and torture camps and their systematic slaughter of so many people, but especially of the men and the boys. This was a shameful period in modern history and I can recall with great clarity my horror at the time at what appeared to be going on in a country I had visited and loved. As more details emerged following the war, I became more aware of the extent of the horrors which had been perpetrated but The Unquiet Dead has brought to life, in such a powerful way, the awful realities for all those who were caught up in this reign of terror.

This is a book that is as deeply disturbing as it is moving. However, I think it is one that should be read by anyone who has an interest in trying to understand why such atrocities occur, the effects on the survivors and what we as fellow human beings need to do to attempt to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself – a lesson we seem to be particularly bad at learning.

I think that this is an outstanding debut novel and, because of the widely-ranging themes, it would be an ideal choice for reading groups. As I have now discovered, there three further books featuring the main characters (The Language of Secrets, Among the Ruins and A Death in Sarajevo), so I am looking forward to reading more of Khan’s intelligent, informed writing and getting to know Esa and Rachel much better.

Linda Hepworth 5/5

The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan
No Exit Press 9781843449447 pbk Jul 2017

dir93 pbk?

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