It often seems to me that we live in a very polarised world, where everyone holds an extreme viewpoint the’re convinced is the right one, and people are immovable on the fact that their version of things is the accurate one. However, that isn’t necessarily a new way of thinking; John Dickson Carr’s “Black Spectacles”, which I reviewed at the beginning of the month, explored the way eyewitness viewpoints differed and how people seeing the same events remembered and interpreted them differently. A new book from the ever-interesting indie publisher V&Q takes things a step further, with a compelling volume which literally turns the story of a group of characters upside down halfway through! The book is “In the Belly of the Queen” by Karosh Taha, translated from the German by Grashina Gabelmann – and it really is an unforgettable read.

Set in an unnamed city in Germany, in a neighbourhood inhabited by immigrants from Kurdish communities, the story(ies!) centre around a number of young people – Younes, Raffiq and Amal being central to the events. The book is in two sections, at 180 degrees from one another, so that you can start from one end, read to the middle, and then flip over and begin the other section from the start. Both covers are identical so the choice is with the reader, and I began with the story narrated by Raffiq. A 17 year old boy, on the cusp of adulthood and struggling to decide about his future, much of his life centres around his friend Younes, his girlfriend Amal and Younes’s mother Shahira. Younes is the centre of attention in the neighbourhood and not necessarily for good reasons; his mother Shahira has brought him up on her own, and as a free spirit and a woman who takes her pleasure wherever and whenever she pleases, she’s not approved of by the rest of the community.

Things are home are not happy for Raffiq, with parental conflict and a longing for the homeland. Younes, however, is troubled by his missing father, and the succession of ‘uncles’ who pass through his home are no help. Things are even more complicated by the fact that Raffiq is fascinated and not a little obsessed by Shahira; and when Amal decides she will go to America to work, Raffiq has to make some hard decisions about his future…

Flip the book over, however, and you get a story narrated by Amal. Something of a tomboy, she shocks the whole community when she beats up her classmate Younes. Although her father defends her and encourages her to stand up for herself, she is given a wide berth by the rest of her class, with the girls taunting her for not being female enough. However, suddenly her father leaves, and her mother is in denial and cannot cope. Amal finds refuge with Shahira and Younes, who are just as much outsiders as Amal is. However, ongoing conflict with Raffiq and his gang brings events to a dramatic climax and so Amal flees to Kurdistan to find her father. Here, she is still an outsider and Amal too has big decisions to make about what to do next.

“In The Belly of the Queen” is an absolutely fascinating read, and very much pushes the boundaries of the traditional novel. The format itself makes for an interesting experience, and makes the divide between the two narratives more marked; the tale could have been divided more traditionally, or the two stories intertwined, but that physical flipping over of the book does reveal two stories in effect at odds with one another. Amal’s story has Raffiq as leader of a gang, a hostile element; yet his narrative has him portrayed very differently, and close to Amal. However, there are many consistencies throughout both sections and that’s what makes the book so interesting.

Each of these stories is rooted in the experience of people who have left their home country and fled somewhere else. The difficulties that brings, the alienation and longing for home, is often painful; and the loss of status that (in particular) qualified men have suffered makes them particular susceptible to returning to their country of origin. However, the position of women is quite different and at one point, when a family is considering returning en masse, it is pointed out that a girl child won’t be able to ride her bike outside any more if they go back. Subtle reminders like this run through the book, and even in a supposedly more equal culture, both Amal and Shahira are judged differently from male characters.

Shahira’s not a neighbour, she’s not a woman, she’s not a person – she’s an idea, and everyone in the neighbourhood sees Shahira, everyone creates their own stories about Shahira when she walks past.

Because central, of course, to both versions of the story, are Amal and Shahira; but their portrayals vary, and Amal in particular is very different depending on which version you’re reading. However Shahira, fecund and physically resplendant, yet ultimately unknowable, dominates all. Refusing to behave as others want her, she ultimately does damage those around her; yet her independence is admirable, and she uses her assets to get exactly what she wants. Wherever she is, she will always be an outsider and perhaps that’s the point here.

As for the young people, their position is maybe the most poignant of the whole story. They have Kurdish heritage, yet were born in Germany, and so are split, belonging in neither place. Amal finds her visit to her home country unsettling, and her father’s new family strange and unfamiliar. Raffiq resists all attempts to make him leave Germany. And what their future will be is anyone’s guess…

“In the Belly of the Queen” was a fascinating read, from starts to finishes!! Both narrators have different and distinctive voices, yet both are negotiating a similar and disturbing period of their lives, where the conflicts between generations becomes even more pointed because of their emigrant status. Although this is a book that looks deeply at the issues the characters are facing, it’s a surprisingly easy read with a light touch and some humour built in. It certainly was a very thought-provoking read, and kudos to V&Q for bringing it out – another winner from a fascinating indie press!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

You can read Ali’s thoughts on the book here.