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Tell Her Everything

Mirza Waheed

(Melville House, 2023)

Review by Suzanne Harrington


Dr K is a double migrant. From a genteel yet humble background in India (‘shorthand for low income’) via an underwhelming stint in London (‘My shoulders were always hunched’), he settles with his wife in an unnamed Middle East oil theocracy where he spends twenty years working as a surgeon at a wealthy hospital, without ever venturing further than five minutes between home and work.   

He is ideal for the job, as an ‘Indian man. Grateful, respects authority, well read, family man. Model immigrant, perfect candidate.’ And he made a ton of tax-free money from his role. His office, ‘one of the larger ones at the hospital’ with an en-suite, has a fridge, and a TV. He buys a Maruti Suzuki Esteem for his village parents in India. These things matter to Dr K. They matter to him terribly.   

When we meet him, he has retired to a million-pound flat overlooking the Thames in central London, where he lives alone, almost friendless. His wife died when their only child, Sara, was six. Now Sara’s a twenty-something year-old in the US, and father and daughter haven’t seen each other in a decade. He is rehearsing what to say to her, when she eventually visits – he wants to tell her everything.    

There is a lot to tell. ‘I did it for money’ is the book’s opening line. But what he did for money – ostensibly for financial security for himself and his family, except he seemed unable to stop hoarding wealth – left him ethically depleted, his Hippocratic Oath cut to the bone.   

The sheikdom’s legal system is overseen by a Great Judge, an unseen Kafkaesque presence who metes out physical punishments regarded by the West as barbaric. Dr K is complicit, but for morally ambiguous reasons. Does he want to make them less barbaric, or is he more concerned with his bank account? Both? (‘I made it more humane, for god’s sake’).

This is a mille-feuille of a novel, gossamer layers of memory laid upon memory, veering off in avoidance when it becomes too painful, too shaming. Dr K’s motives for his actions – his love for his wife and daughter – are unquestionable, unlike his highly questionable actions. He blanks things out. And he questions Western hypocrisy: ‘Was it any different from being on the other side of a glass partition in a [US] penitentiary? We are all death voyeurs.’ He asks, ‘Haven’t we all been at it for centuries?’  

Despite its inhuman central premise, this is a work of great delicacy and humanity. There are moments of unintentional hilarity too when Dr K’s prejudices are exposed by his own observations (‘I’d never met a Jewish person before, Sara, and I found her to be absolutely normal’). He is horrified by alcohol, nudity, men in low-slung trousers exposing underwear labels. His social conservatism is further highlighted by his free-wheeling friend Biju, a doctor from Kerala. His only friend.

The layers build, sweeping backward and forward through time and imagined conversations with Sara, whom we meet only in letters. Hope glimmers through the ambiguity and regret, in a work that is both subtle and shocking, and hard to dislodge from the mind.