Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Guapa by Saleem Haddad

"There is an art to misinterpreting. It needs to be done subtly so that it doesn't cause chaos, but just enough to leave a lingering sense of confusion"

I came across this debut novel from Saleem Haddad in WHSmith's new writers section and after starting it straight away on the train I was immediately hooked. I don't think I've read another book about a young gay guy living in the Middle East.

Guapa tells the story of a young guy, Rasa, living in an unnamed Arabic city in and around the time of the Arab Spring. The story is told in a single impassioned day in which Rasa's life unravels in a whirlwind of potential shame and disgrace or eib. Rasa lives in an apartment with his grandmother who he manages to conceal his relationship with boyfriend Taymour from until she spies them through a key hole. This is the central narrative hook the plot hangs off but the story is so much more.

Rasa is completely disillusioned by life in the Middle East but also by Western culture which is vividly explained in a flash back to his time studying in the US around the time of the 9/11 attacks which left his identity as more threat than exotic; "America is like a fisherman's hook that can catch you and either cut you up and eat you, or if you are not to its taste, toss you back in the water with a hook shaped hole in your cheek". Back at home Haddad brilliantly uses Rasa's job as a translator as a metaphor for the internal dilemma he faces making sense of the World.

Guapa itself is an underground gay bar which the city's LGBT community use as a base and sanctuary. The story could easily portray this alternative reality as a cliche but Haddad's portrayal is raw and authentic but never over the top. Haddad writes the character of Rasa's friend Majid, a celebrated local drag queen, perfectly. Narratively Guapa needs Majid as a counter balance to the relationship between Rasa and Taymour.

I left this novel wanting to read more. I thoroughly trusted Saleem Haddad as a writer and for opening my eyes to so much within the limits of a highly readable novel. This novel is part political, part religious but entirely human and I can't wait to read more but this exciting author.

I read this novel in paperback on the train into Marylebone

Guapa by Saleem Haddad published by Europa Editions, 304 pages.      

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