Unimagined by Imran Ahmad – review

UnimaginedI 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.


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14 thoughts on “Unimagined by Imran Ahmad – review

  1. Dear Alan, Thank you so much for taking the time to read my book. Unfortunately, your comments indicate that your reading was somewhat superficial and that you completely missed the subtext — which is gravely disappointing for someone of your intellect.

    An early indication of something amiss is that you state that I moved to England at the age of 4, when it was in fact at the age of one. How you could fail to notice that those three years were set in England is beyond me. Your scathing opinion of the literary merit of the book is entirely your right and privilege to hold and express, but quite at odds with a broad range of opinions at both media and grassroots level. (But those readers, of course, could see the subtext.) If the book was quite as ‘fluffy’ and ‘inconsequential’ as you assert, it is improbable that THREE different major newspapers would have included it in their ‘best books of the year’ lists: Guardian, Independent, Sydney Morning Herald. (But these are, of course, well known to be Islamist publications.)

    You assert: “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.” If this was indeed the case, the following quotes would be highly improbable:

    “My favourite book of 2007 … paints a beautiful picture … the end result is unforgettable.” Anne Widdecombe MP (with a reputation for being a very committed, conservative Christian).

    “… deserves all the praise it’s had … very clearly and vividly written … funny and perceptive … very clever, actually …” Philip Pullman (committed atheist).

    “‘Unimagined’ is successful in striking that balance, by presenting a thought-provoking debate even as it makes you laugh out loud.” The Hindu

    And just to prove the point, but from the opposite angle, the Government of Qatar has blocked publication of ‘Unimagined’ in Arabic, citing that it has “unsuitable content”.

    What the book does is highlight hypocrisy wherever the narrator sees it, including in Islam. Now, about the subtext:

    “What a very strange book. There’s more to it than meets the eye … this Trojan horse of a book.” The Book Magazine

    “ ‘Unimagined’ is in my opinion one of the most important books I’ve read in the last couple of years. It’s a quietly subversive masterpiece of militant moderation, and everyone should read it.” Jonathan Pinnock (www.jonathanpinnock.com)

    But YOU have missed the subtext and that is troubling. Not to worry! In the newly published and updated version — ‘Unimagined – Muhammad, Jesus and James Bond’ — I have added two Epilogues and an Afterword which make the subtext crystal clear. Some of my supportive readers have protested that this is a ‘dumbing down’ of the book, but I think that is a better option than the book being misunderstood when a certain type of person reads it. I value all opinions, so the following quote from you will be added to my website http://www.unimagined.org:

    “… a fluffy read of no real consequence.” Alan Baxter

    Best regards, Imran

  2. Methinks the author doth protest too much.

    My mistake with your age at the start of the post was purely due to my not going back and checking before writing. It’s a small and hardly relevant mistake, for which I apologise. It has no real bearing on the rest.

    You claim that I missed the subtext. I think I discovered an altogether different subtext, and it was one I didn’t care for. You go to great lengths here to justify your book, when you really don’t need to. You have massive literary acclaim for this, so the views of an obscure Australian spec fic writer are hardly worth your time.

    The truth is, people take from books what they will. When we send our babies out into the world, there’s nothing we can do to change what people think of them. The fact that you need to defend your intention, even to the point of adding extra explanation in a second edition, speaks more about your writing and the potential for confusion over your “subtext” than anything else. Besides, given the acclaim the book has received, it looks like you’re getting away with it.

    My opinion is just that – my opinion. Don’t let it bother you.

  3. And here we have a perfect example of How NOT To React To A Negative Review On The Intermanets, folks. Or: How To Make Yourself Appear A Bit Of A Douche. I was interested in reading the book (Alan’s personal opinion aside – or maybe even because of Al’s personal opinion!) until Imran waded in with his ego-hammer. Now I’ll be avoiding it.

  4. I’m not a critically acclaimed author, but let me try this:

    ‘Hi Alan,

    I read your review and would like to thank you for the time you spent with my novel, even if it wasn’t entirely to your liking. I’m glad you laughed in parts, and although you seemed to get a different subtext from the one I was intending I realise that every reader is different.

    Thanks again for taking the time to read, and even review, ‘Unimagined’, and I hope my next book which is due for publication in is more to your taste.

    Peace, yo,


  5. Thank you for the laugh. I read quite a few book blogs, but have never read an author’s reaction like this one. Think someone needs to pack away the ego. Personally, I think Mr Ahmad’s response did more harm than Alan’s review. One bad review may not deter a reader from reading a book, but a jerk of an author definitely would. Thanks again for the giggle, and I’ll be sure to pass this around to as many book bloggers as possible.

  6. *Wipes tear of mirth from eye* Wonderful to see that, in
    this digital age, there are still folk out there unafraid to make
    complete twats of themselves. Al, you should definitely use some of
    Whatshisname’s comments to advertise your blog. (PS – Yes, I know
    his name’s Ahmad. As a bookseller, I’ve stocked his book. Shan’t be
    recommending it, based upon this prissy wanksob).

  7. Hi Alan,
    Excellent review! I couldn’t agree with you more! I, like so many of my friends, felt that he is subtly trying to preach Islam.
    Keep up the good work.

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