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Mixed Media: Books


Two Sisters
Into the Syrian Jihad
by Åsne Seierstad, translated by Seán Kinsella (Virago, ISBN 978 0 349 00905 6)

In October 2013, Ayan and Leila – then aged 19 and 16 – voluntarily left their home in Oslo and travelled to Syria to find husbands and support the creation of a new Islamic State. Convinced that they had been brainwashed or kidnapped, their father spent the next two years desperately trying to get them back.

Journalist Åsne Seierstad, best known for The Bookseller of Kabul, painstakingly recreates the girls’ story from multiple sources – including, 21st-century drama that this is, fascinating social-media conversations between the girls and their family and friends both before and after their arrival in Syria. How did two intelligent and articulate teenagers come to be radicalized? What led them to take such a bold and irreversible step?

Though this is their story, it is also the story of the girls’ family – a father who risks everything, including his mental and physical health, and his integrity, to bring them home; a mother who takes her two youngest sons back to Somaliland to ensure a moderate Muslim upbringing away from the perceived threat of radicalization in Norway; and a brother whose response is to embrace atheism. The family’s crisis is placed within a wider context of the war in Syria and the failure of the West and of society – even in a country trying hard to embrace diversity – to tackle the real issues behind it.

Two Sisters was a prize-winning bestseller in Norway. Its appeal is understandable, but don’t expect a comfortable read: your sympathies may not end up where you think.

★★★★ JL

A Moonless, Starless Sky
by Alexis Okeowo (Corsair, ISBN 9781472153715)

Alexis Okeowo has given her volume of reportage the subtitle ‘ordinary women and men fighting extremism in Africa’ and that is both an accurate description of the book’s contents and a pointer to the author’s fresh approach to her subject matter. Okeowo, an American journalist based in Lagos for six years, eschews both the flashy headline and the superficial overview in her attempt to portray the lives of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

In these interwoven narratives from four African countries she highlights successful community action to face down extremism. In Uganda we learn of Eunice and Bosco, teenagers kidnapped by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army who manage, against all the odds to escape and forge a life and family together. In Mauritania we hear how one man’s opposition to modern-day slavery grew from a lonely, quixotic fight into a national campaign. The third narrative thread concerns the foundation of community vigilante groups in Nigeria to combat the violence and destruction of Boko Haram. Finally, in Somalia, barely a country, the astounding tale unfolds of a women’s basketball team’s heroic struggle to survive in the face of religious bigotry and intolerance.

Alexis Okeowo has a journalistic eye for the telling detail and her vivid prose is a fitting testament to these courageous individuals. Each of these stories is an illustration of how seemingly small acts of resistance and rebellion can be the catalyst for change and the foundation for hope, even in the direst of situations.

★★★★ PW

Brother in Ice
by Alicia Kopf, translated by Mara Faye Lethem (And Other Stories, ISBN 978 1 911508 20 5)

From the heart of Europe, Catalan Alicia Kopf’s narrator (who may or may not be a fictionalized version of the author) finds herself drawn to the mysteries of the polar world, and she starts researching the explorers, scientists and artists whose life mission it was to unravel them. Snowflakes, snow globes and the wonderfully named ice blinks all hold a fascination for her, as does the polar silence which seems to reflect the situation of her autistic brother, who is unable to express himself properly and whose actions freeze up, so that simple tasks take lengthy amounts of time.

But like ice, this work – part research notes, part fictionalized diary, part travelogue – has many layers, and the most interesting are those that focus on the narrator’s own challenges as she undergoes an inner exploration of her creativity, her relationship with lovers and with her family – which she refers to as a ‘cold war’ – and the effects of recession and austerity on herself and her peers. Her inner journey, which she describes as a ‘personal deconstruction’, leaves her bruised and fragile, so she escapes to Iceland, her personal utopia, acknowledging that ‘it is much easier to get to the Arctic than to reach certain areas of oneself’.

It is possible to escape to the ends of the earth, to seek the numbing of pain that can be found in ice and snow. But, as this brave and honest narrative reveals, the most important journey we can undertake is inwards – and that requires the courage to allow oneself to thaw.

★★★ JL

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