Set between 1990 and 2015, Guy Gunaratne’s brilliant second novel records the “making” of Yahya Bas. He is a young British Muslim boy from London who becomes a poet, a pariah, an exile and eventually a man held in a UK detention centre after fleeing the conflict in Syria.
Writing from his cell, Yahya tells his life story to an unknown interlocutor in a voice that has all the freewheeling potency of Ali Smith, Derek Owusu and Max Porter’s fiction. Although diffident and downtrodden by a racialised world that suspects him of being a jihadist, Yahya is an irresistibly charismatic force, perceptive in his readings of the settings and communities he has traversed.
As well as the magnetism of Gunaratne’s lead character, it’s these singular settings and communities that make this novel remarkable. The ramshackle Muslim women’s refuge centre where Bas’ life begins is a case in point. When pregnant with Yayha, Estella – grief-stricken after the absconding of Yahya’s Iraqi father, Marwan – finds herself in a crisis centre in East Ham. It’s “as much circus as home … little rooms smelling of perfume and powder … mirrors everywhere … verses hung above doors.”
With poor mental health, Estella is unable to look after her son, so Yahya is raised by others at the centre – a cast of doughty, resourceful, dreamy women – and Sisi Gamal, Yahya’s idiosyncratic uncle. Sisi Gamal has a mouldering study in the centre’s basement – a place of “dead wood, spit-up tobacco and musty bedsheets”. In these shadowy recesses and under Gamal’s maverick tutelage, the young boy is awakened to the “colours and richness” of Arabic verse.
His interest blossoms when Yahya takes up a place at Ibn Rabah, a highly academic Islamic school. Despite misconceptions about Ibn Rabah being “the great radicaliser, chock-full of fanatics”, Yahya recalls it as “a place similar to your public schools in a lot of ways. All quadrangle doorways and long hallways, packed with long-necked posh boys in buttoned up collars”. This emphasis on the correlation between archetypal Britishness and Islamic tradition is a sustained theme of this story. The novel asserts Yahya’s Britishness – even while the institutions of Britishness subsequently seek to decry, denounce and deny him.
With the Iraq War roiling away in the background, Yahya discovers his own poetic voice at school, producing eloquent verse that questions Western hegemony and responds to the Islamophobia he encounters. Now going by the nom de plume “Al-Bayn” – a deft play on “Albion” – Yahya’s fiery poetry develops a huge following, and notoriety too.
Never does Yahya outwardly see himself as the proselytising force the police do. Never does he think of his poetry and its potential in extremist terms – he is more artist than agitator. And never is he comfortable with the way his new-found fame is stoked and exploited by Ibrahim, Yahya’s old school friend and dubious manager of sorts.
Fleeing this tightening net sends Yahya on a perilous and polemical journey to Syria which, in part, calls to mind aspects of the Shamima Begum case. This epic flight to the Middle East, in unmarked vans and with questionable companions, through dense forests and boundless deserts, is described in richly hallucinatory detail. It gives this narrative a sweeping magnitude.
Mister, Mister is a novel keenly aware of its own grand magnitude and “rambling” structure. The narrator readily admits that sometimes the storytelling urge and the primacy of speaking his truth overwhelms, resulting in a narrative that might feel troublingly “uneven, unfixed, fragmented” in places. But the abiding quality of this novel is not its lopsided shape or a need for tidying up here and there. It is notable for the sheer and shining humanity of the writing: Gunaratne captures the longing and loneliness of their protagonist’s experiences in prose that thrums with aliveness and surely confirms them as one of the most innovative and important writers working today.