Dear TLS -
I was glad to see a review in your latest issue (January 24) by Mona Tabbara, of The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted The War, in your In Brief section.
I am the editor and publisher of Sumia Sukkar's debut novel, which is why I was particularly struck by this review.
Sukkar's novel is about the Syrian civil war between 2012 and early 2013 - each chapter marks an increasingly terrible moment of escalation, from the cutting of electricity to a final gas attack outside of Damascus. The book, filled with intertextual allusion, features many characters, but the narrator is Adam, a young man on the Autistic Spectrum.
Despite the fact that Ms Sukkar is the youngest-ever British Muslim woman to publish a novel - and despite the fact this is a political novel with much to say about terrorism, violence, faith, and art - and also develops a portrait of a very loving Muslim family coping with mental health issues and also wider social struggle - anyway, despite all of this, your reviewer mentioned none of this.
Instead, in her 250 word or so (it is brief) review, she spends the first half loosely describing one aspect of the plot, Adam's autism, and then spends the second half saying this autistic narrative voice becomes tedious, and is never as convincing as that of the boy in the best-selling Mark Haddon novel.
This is intellectually weak and rather poor stuff. It is like reviewing The Diary of Anne Frank and forgetting to mention The Holocaust.
It is true that the narrator is disabled - but that is hardly the defining aspect of the novel. As The Times noted in its review, the research is impeccable, and the evocation of the present day plight of Syrian refugees (the second half of the novel follows a group of refugees) convincing. I have, it should be added, spoken to a writer doing their PhD on Asperger's and fiction, who claims that Adam is the most realistic instance of autism in fiction she has come across. My godson is autistic, and, again, Adam seems spot on. To claim his voice in the book is tedious is a bit like complaining that Milton is blind - one rather best get over it. People are allowed their disabilities.
I would have expected this satirical, bold, very funny, and colourful novel to be reviewed with something close to interest in its engagement in a very serious ongoing crisis for millions of Syrians; and with some mention of its politically astute balancing of criticism for both the rebel and Assad sides.
I would not have expected such a bold and eye-opening book - one that many readers find brings them to tears - to be trivialised in such an offhand manner.
I am not sure what Ms. Tabbara's position vis a vis Syria's civil war is - but as she was reviewing a book set amidst its suffering, she might have given us some indication that the novel, indeed, was mainly and mostly, about that historic moment - and not simply a book about a young boy and his cat. To say that the author, myself, and the novel's many supporters felt let down by this non-review is an understatement.
It is nothing short of a kind of dereliction of moral and critical duty to have written such a vapid disengaged review - and it leads me to think the reviewer did not read past the first few pages (indeed, she makes no mention of any incident past the first few chapters) - and this includes the death, mutilation, and rape, of various characters in the book; not does the reviewer seem to know that (spoiler alert) the narration switches voices for awhile mid-novel.
When a serious young British Muslim voice appears on the British literary landscape, is it too much to ask for her to be treated with the same sort of attention and seriousness that Martin Amis would get if they had written the same book, which, by its use of the trope of the "holy innocent" follows Voltaire and Dostoevsky, rather more than Haddon (Haddon's morally bland text is subtly and slyly satirised in Sukkar's book which shows that civil war is more than a curious incident)?
These reviews have a real impact on the reception of a novel, and especially when a review is of a serious debut novel, it seems only fair to expect the reviewer to take care to represent the full depth and range of the novel, rather than simply focus on one (in this case stylistic) aspect. It isn't hard to give a young author a bad review; it is far more impressive to give them a truly reflective one.
Dr Todd Swift
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