The Runaways by Fatima Bhutto
Fatima Bhutto's 'The Runaways'
Despite finding her debut novel disappointing, I picked up Fatima Bhutto’s second novel, “The Runaways” after her session at the Lahore Literature Festival, as I was drawn towards the themes she has discussed in the book. The novel deals with various contemporary subjects such as radicalisation, immigration, identity crisis, power dynamics and class barriers; observed keenly through the eyes of its sensitive characters. The characters, brimming with confusion, angst, indignity and personal failings, lie at the crux of the story and for the most part, this is a gripping book, but it falters in the second half - sometimes a bit too drastically.
The novel follows the stories of three characters, each grappling with overwhelming emotions due to different reasons. There’s Sunny Jamil, a “BBCD” (British Born Confused Desi), son of an Indian immigrant to Portsmouth, who is battling an identity crisis while trying to belong to the United Kingdom. Trying to come to terms with his sexuality, and loathing his father, his life is compounded when his cousin “Oz” (Osman) returns from Jihad. Thousands of miles away, there’s Monty (Mustafa), son of one of the wealthiest men in Karachi; surrounded by money, opulence and girls, Monty’s life takes a flip-turn when he falls for the enigmatic new girl in his school, Layla. In the same city, existing in an altogether different zone is the slum-child Anita Rose, a Christian whose family life has always been tough. Anita takes refuge in the words and books of her elderly communist neighbour, inspired by the likes of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib.
“How far will you run to escape your life?” the novel asks. For these characters, the answer is the desert of a war-torn Iraq. For their separate reasons, the characters end up in the war zone, where they side with ISIS (though the book never names the organization) and their lives intersect; though not always pleasantly. The book is divided into four parts, tracing the characters’ evolution during the period of 2014-2017. The first part is the strongest, when the characters come alive, and their personas and internal conflicts are sketched out in detail. This is where the readers can relate to the characters, and feel their suffering. As things take a more practical turn, the charm of the writing somewhat gets lost.
While Bhutto’s writing is effective and her prose beautiful, the plot doesn’t always complement the former and important connections in the plot turn out to be flimsy. The trajectories in the characters’ arcs, such as Anita Rose’s are unconvincing. Anita Rose ends up being the weakest link in the chain and her evolution is far too dramatic to digest. The novel has been written in the third person format, with different chapters relegated to different characters. A respite is taken from this format in the case of Anita Rose, in order to add some thrill to the story. However, the liberties taken with fiction get a tad too much at times. Similar to Mohsin Hamid’s treatment of the difficult topic of immigration in his book, Exit West, Bhutto's portrayal of ISIS feels too casual at times, as if half-heartedly researched.
But these loopholes are somewhat compensated for by Fatima’s rich writing when it comes to cities and cultures. Karachi, Portsmouth and London - all have been written about with an observant eye, and you can actually experience their sights and sounds as you read. To Karachi specifically, from the sounds of the mynah birds to the puddles of Macchar Colony, the novel does justice. As already mentioned, Bhutto’s strength lies in her attention to detail, characters and places, but not the plot.
Nevertheless, The Runaways is an important book which drew rave reviews internationally. It may be more important for Western audiences, who seldom realize the tribulations citizens of the third world encounter on a daily basis, and what draws many individuals towards violence and wars. The story may not remain with you long after you’re done with the novel, partially due to an inconclusive climax, but the characters might. That, in itself, is a sign of success.
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The Runaways by Fatima Bhutto