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Suhayl Saadi Two Ravens Press: Scotland. 2009. p. £13.99 ISBN: 9781906120443.
This is a big book, in every way: it is excessive, extravagant, exuberant, exhilarating, erotic, esoteric, entertaining, entrancing and eccentric; and like the boxes that give it a structure, of sorts, it contains layer upon layer of allusions and connections. The narrative sweeps across continents, and the cultural references include everything from hip hop to classical verse forms of the Moghul emperors. The psychological landscape ranges from the hard realities of what we are used to calling, rather primly, ‘the doctor–patient relationship’ (transgressed in the most shocking way) to hallucinatory meanderings along the wilder shores of the subconscious.
Zuleikha Chasm Framareza MacBeth (Zulie for short) is a middle-aged GP grieving the loss of her Afghani mother and, some years earlier, of her only son Dhaoud. On an evening of despair she wanders along the banks of the Clyde and finds, bobbing in the current, a strange box. With the help of another recently bereft wanderer, Alex Wolfe, she retrieves the box, and they take it back to her flat. There they begin the adventure of unravelling the spells that lock each of the seven nested boxes, deciphered through Alex's magical mutating lute and his computational skills.
Other significant characters include Archie McPherson, once an aircraft engineer, now a patient of Zulie's, dying of mesothelioma yet imbued with a power over his doctor that she can neither explain nor resist; Laila Asunsi, ‘ageing hippy’ extraordinaire who lives in an old house near a Lincolnshire aerodrome where Archie once worked, danced, and made love; Peppe Ayala, Sicilian cousin of Laila and an archaeological historian; Petrus Dihdo Labolka, a juggler and impresario of Russo-Punjabi parentage, ex-lover of Laila living in Lahore; and young Zulfikar Ali Lobsang, a Baltistani guide who takes Zulie and Alex on their final enlightening journey to the high mountains of Ladakh, where their weird experiences culminate in the strangest of all stories.
If you ask what the book is about, the answer would have to include: the power of music to communicate across cultures and epochs; the ramifications of colonialism and its mindset; the nature of grief and loss, and ways to their resolution; the significance of origins, migrations, class stratifications, and political affiliations; the transcendence of love — and, I suppose, the evolution of the lute. As the author more lyrically puts it:
‘Zuleikha at last was able to hear and understand all the tongues of her forbears and to comprehend the love that bound people together and the pain which they felt when they were cast apart by time, place or circumstance — and above all, by death. And in all this epic song of the earth and the stars, Zuleikha felt that maybe she was a single complex note […] and that contained within it was the music of an infinitude of songs, all accompanied by the plucking of a stringed instrument.’
If you want to avoid overloading your bookshelf, the novel will be published as an e-book at www.josephsbox.co.uk where you can also find background material, some of it informative, some, such as the author's pre-emptive footnote aimed at potentially bemused reviewers such as myself, more playful. In the book itself I could have done with a glossary of the many foreign words of varied and uncertain origin referring to music, architecture, and poetry, but perhaps this is asking too much from a multilingual author writing for a mixed readership; less excusable from a medically trained author is the repeated use of ‘enervation’ for ‘innervation’ and the misspelling of minuscule. These though are tiny quibbles. This is emphatically not one of those earnest books which reviewers in these pages deem worthy of inclusion ‘in every practice library’, but I hope it will find itself on the holiday reading lists of the curious and the open-minded looking for something quite different.