City of Jackals – Parker Bilal

This book was sent to me by Bloomsbury India in exchange of an honest review

The latest installment in the Makana series by Parker Bilal lived up to the promise of his earlier work. The first book I read by him was a revelation, opening my eyes about Egypt, a country that usually only features in our minds as a tourist destination (the same is probably true for what others think of India, so I hope I can be forgiven my short sightedness or rather my ignorance of world events). Parker Bilal’s new book, along with a fascinating story that meanders through quite a few plot lines, educated me about the culture of another country – Sudan. The religious divide in the North and South of Sudan is chilling and its results horrifying. Reading about a one-line update on the news and reading about people whose lives have been affected by it (even those in fiction) is very different.

Makana is a middle-aged Sudanese living in Egypt for the last few years. He was chased out of Khartoum possibly due to his politics and lost his wife and daughter in his flight to freedom. There are some rumours that say his daughter is in fact alive in Khartoum and a prisoner but it has never been confirmed. Going back to look for her is a suicide mission and the decision whether to do so keeps eating away at him. Makana is a loner and not a very happy person as a result of his experiences. He lives on a dilapidated houseboat (what an eccentricity!) and has a few very interesting friends.

In this book Makana has just undertaken to search for a man in his twenties who has been missing for a few weeks from his university. The parents are worried even though most people refuse to take the disappearance of a grown man seriously. The very next day a head turns up in the river near his boat and since it is clearly that of a Sudanese refugee, the police are not very keen on looking for answers. The officer in charge and Makana’s somewhat friend Okasha puts Makana in charge of the investigation with some clever emotional blackmail. The medical examiner is Doctor Siham, a lone highly intelligent woman in the predominantly male world of Egyptian government. She teams up with Makana most unexpectedly and manages to shake his equilibrium a quite a bit, which I enjoyed very much. It is she who points out that the severed head belongs to a Southern Sudanese which would thus make him a refugee and a Christian.

The best thing about Parker Bilal’s writing is that it is so crisp and well-rounded that one immediately feels comfortable with his story and his narrative style. His descriptions are not too long-winded as to become tedious, nor so short that one is left floundering with half-formed ideas. Egypt has certainly come alive in my mind after reading his books – much like the mental images of London or America that books have given me. I have certainly googled a lot of stuff after reading this book – the history of Sudan, the Palace Gardens, medicine in Egypt and so on.

Makana is not some young, spunky detective and yet one is rooting for him from almost the get go. He is a sad, lonely man and yet has friends who seem incredibly loyal to him, even at the expense of landing in very serious trouble. You are inclined to start wishing for more humour and more love to come his way since he is essentially a nice guy.

Reading about refugees as always gets me thinking about how terrible it must be to leave all that you love behind and move into uncharted and more often than not hostile waters. How do you decide what to take and what to leave behind? Is it possible to ever get over the loss of a house that you spent decades turning into a home?

It is an incredibly serious story and a thought provoking one as well, staying with you long after you have flipped over the last page, branding itself on your brain with all its political and social pointers about life in countries that seem to have so much in common with our own. Having a home, freedom to live as you please and the desire to enjoy a life without persecution are all ideals that everyone can relate to. One can only applaud Parker Bilal’s ingenuity of camouflaging a history and social lesson in what would normally be termed as leisure reading.

Waiting for his next.

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