I mentioned recently that I was planning to read one non-genre novel for every SF novel I read. With that in mind I’ve just read Unimagined by Imran Ahmad. My wife recommend it to me – “It’s nothing life changing, but I enjoyed it.” It’s billed as “a Muslim boy meets the West” and it received heavy literary credit in several countries. Frankly, I can’t really understand why.
On the whole, I did enjoy it, as a fluffy read of no real consequence. It’s an entertaining account of the life of Ahmad, from his arrival in England from Pakistan at the age of 4, though to his mid-20s. He’s not a bad writer and often has some good turns of phrase. He talks about his school life, endemic British racism, going to a Grammar school and eventually getting into university in Scotland, all the time studying the things he really doesn’t like while spending all his spare time considering things that do actually interest him. Because of this, Ahamd comes across as a pretty sad individual.
More troublesome, however, is that the whole narrative becomes ever more contrived. The book is written in bite sized chunks of Ahmad’s life and it’s easy to read because of that, but the man himself seems to never grow up. The naive four year old at the start of the book still inhabits the twenty five year old body at the end of the book. It’s hard to accept that anyone can remain so unchanged and undeveloped.
The book is also a veiled attack on all religions bar the man’s own chosen Islam, and a subtle push for the veracity of being a Muslim. It’s all very light-hearted, with Ahmad struggling with his belief, trying to apply logic to his choice and seeking out the things that scare him – those people that have such conviction in their own beliefs that he questions his own. He ends up coming down to a choice between evangelical Christianity and Islam, eventually deciding clearly that Christianity is a complete mess and Islam is the one true faith. Regular readers here will know that I hold all organised religion in equal contempt, but I’m not averse to reading about other people’s journeys and perspectives. The trouble with the religious content of this book is that Ahmad uses his own journey to hightlight all the ridiculous flaws of other religions, while studiously ignoring all the flaws in his own, and falling back on “cultural contamination” when the flaws get a little too close to the surface.
By the end of the book I was rather annoyed with the clean-cut, upstanding, morally superior yet still naive Muslim poster boy that Ahmad set himself up as and was pleased I’d reached the end. There’s no real story here, no solid narrative arc and no real reason for this book’s existence other than Ahmad’s own need to document his life. A life which seems to be largely coloured in with things that suit his desired appearance over the probable truths.
I’m being fairly harsh on the poor man, but I always arc up when I feel like I’m being preached to, especially when said preaching is delivered with an innocent smile as if nothing untoward is going on. Regardless, for the most part I enjoyed reading the book and there were several parts that had me smiling and enjoying myself. It’s just a shame that Ahmad didn’t grow at all during the journey, which made the last third or so of the book quite a chore. Interesting and often entertaining, but hardly “The pick of the literary crop” as the cover declares, courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald.