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Mister, Mister

Guy Gunaratne 

Hachette (2023)

Review by Tim Finch


‘I’m wondering why someone like you, who is British, who has an English mother, who has lived all his life in this nation, this country, would turn his back and end up hating your home.’ 

Near the end of Mister, Mister, Guy Gunaratne puts this question in the mouth of a British intelligence officer interrogating Yahya Bas, the first-person protagonist of the novel. Readers will have had that question in their minds for the previous 350-odd pages. How well they think Yahya answers it – or indeed whether he needs to answer it – will, in large part, dictate their response to Mister, Mister. 

There have been early pointers as to why Yahya follows the path of radicalisation and eventually ‘joins the caravan’ to the conflict in Syria. There’s his idolisation of an absent, Iraqi-born father who returned to the Middle East, perhaps to ‘fight’ during the first Gulf War (1990-91), and who has not been heard of since. Then there’s the uncle who obsessively records the news on video tape, notably Western atrocities in the Middle East. And back at ‘home’, there’s the alienating experience for a mixed-race British boy of seeing fellow citizens ‘recoil’ when they see ‘any black or brown body in a public square’. But Yahya is portrayed as a sensitive, poetic young man, so it comes as shock when he experiences ecstatic visions of England football fans being blown up by a bomb on a train. Soon, his talent for classical Islamic verse has mutated into on-line ‘poetry’ with hateful lines such as ‘the red and blue may burn, may burn, may burn’ and ‘I’d have these white bodies beaten face down into their own shit and piss’ – lines he proclaims joyfully as ‘a breakthrough at last!’ 

In one of the novel’s most pointed ripostes, Yahya tells his interrogator: ‘You, of all people should know, Mister, what it’s like to follow ill-thought convictions so blindly.’ Elsewhere, he talks of being subject to an ‘inherited jinx’ and of young men doing ‘many foolish things’.  But such is his wilful obfuscation, his posturing and his petulance, it is hard to feel much, if any, sympathy for him. 

Mister, Mister does, however, contain pleasures, such as Yahya describing his departure to Syria in Rumsfeldian terms as a journey into an ‘unknown-unknown’. There are echoes of Salman Rushdie in the early sections detailing Yahya’s boyhood in a run-down women’s refuge amid a ‘crazy carousel’ of fragrant ‘Mothers’, and later when he spends time in the lyrically evoked ‘Free City’. There are also shades of Martin Amis in Gunaratne’s dark depiction of an East End full of swaggering, verbally precocious, fiercely literate Muslim boys forever eating fried chicken and terrible chips, and ‘slurping’ Coke.  

There is fun, too, in the Mothers’ and Yahya’s devotion to classic British comedy characters such as Hyacinth Bucket and Tony Hancock, while Yahya’s attachment to, and yet detachment from, Britain is neatly captured in references to ‘your Peter Sissons, your Blyton, your Wordsworth’.  

Ultimately, Yahya despises Britain, even though he is inescapably British and belongs nowhere else.  His explanation is that this country and its leaders have ‘abandoned’ him and his community so there’s nothing to atone for or to be ashamed of in him siding with jihadis. If that provokes unease, even fury, in the reader, that’s tough, Gunaratne seems to say. And for that, you have to admire the boldness.