I was gifted a free eARC* of this book by the publisher, via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
*eARC: electronic Advance Review Copy.
TWs: rape, murder (of family), self-harm, violence, freedom fighters/terrorism.
When I requested this book on NetGalley, I was unaware that Own Voices reviewers were regularly being declined for OV books. In future I will be more mindful when requesting, and I truly hope that me being granted this book didn’t take away an opportunity from an OV reviewer. I still wanted to read and review this book to hopefully shine a spotlight on it, and I didn’t want the book to lose the chance of a review as I felt that would be unfair to the author.
Title: An Isolated Incident
Author: Soniah Kamal
Publisher: Alison & Busby
Release Date: Originally published in 2014, republished 23rd July 2020.
Genre: Literary Fiction
An Isolated Incident by Soniah Kamal tells the story of Zari Zoon, a Muslim Kashmiri girl who loses her family in a terrible act of violence perpetrated by a group with unknown affiliation, and for reasons unknown. As such, from the start, this is a heavy book to read. Fortunately, I’m not one to shy away from books that address difficult topics, and I knew very little about Kashmir, so I was intrigued from the start. As the book goes on, the situation Kashmir is in becomes clearer, with Pakistan and India fighting over the territory, while a third faction fights for Kashmir’s independence. Zari, however, is left with nothing in her home nation, having lost her extended family, friend, and fiance in the same horrific incident. She ends up moving to America, having been offered a home by the Nabis, friends of Zari’s family, where much of the story takes place.
While a lot of this story takes place in America, Kashmir remains present throughout in many different ways. The scenes that take place in Kashmir build a great image of a war-torn country, juxtaposing family life with the violence and destruction caused by the struggle for power. The images of Kashmir are haunting and devastating. While this book is about Kashmir, the violence that occurs there in the fight for control over the region is certainly not unique, and knowing these things have happened, and continue to happen across the world filled me with horror. Kamal builds an incredibly powerful image of Kashmir, one that I am sure will stay with me for a long time.
While this book is unable to offer any hope or redemption for Kashmir in an ongoing power struggle, there is hope and redemption to be found for individuals. Zari and Billy (the son of the Nabis), the central characters, both experience severe trauma throughout the course of the book. The depiction of mental health issues in this book was really sensitively dealt with, and it also addressed the cultural stigma that came along with these issues for the characters. The culture around shame and purity came into play a lot in this novel due to the trauma Zari goes through, and I loved that the younger generation were really fighting against these stigmas, and the older generation were also able to move past the stigmas and accept Zari. The conflict the older generation had around this was really interesting to me. While they take Zari in, and treat her kindly and appear to reserve judgement, they are shown to have internalised stigmas attached to rape victims. This internalisation is something that crops up throughout the novel, and is something that the characters work towards overcoming.
The characters in this book were really complex, well-written characters. Even the supporting characters feel really well drawn out, and there’s a lot of character development (and even a nice bit of character regression!) throughout the book that kept me on my toes. Zari, as the protagonist did really stand out, as did Billy, but Billy’s sister Salsabil also really stood out to me, as did Fahad and Billy’s aunt Babara. Even the least likeable of characters were still captivating. The stories and secrets that gradually unravel throughout the book, family secrets kept hidden away adds to the complexity of the narrative and makes for some amazing character development.
Yet another thing I really enjoyed about An Isolated Incident was the pacing. Given the length, I wouldn’t have been surprised to have felt that it dragged on a bit, but due to the complexity of the novel, the backstories, side plots, and flashbacks, the pacing stayed right on track, keeping me engaged through the entire book. The story deviates slightly from Zari in the second half and, while I love Zari’s character, I think this introduction of a second, parallel narrative was exactly what the story needed to keep it fresh and engaging, and it also offered a very unique perspective and narrative.
Finally, a quick word on the writing style, which I really enjoyed. Kamal doesn’t shy away from including Kashmiri words and phrases scattered throughout the book, though they are always incorporated in a way that makes the meaning clear, which is something I love to see in books. There’s also an essay in the back of the book that I highly recommend reading and not skipping over if you pick up this book. Kamal is clearly a very talented fiction and nonfiction writer, and she is definitely an author I would pick up again. The essay focuses on her own family history, showing where certain elements of the text came from the experiences and lives of her family.
Overall, this was a great read. If you’re looking for light, fluffy books then this definitely isn’t for you, but if you want to learn more about Kashmir and Muslim culture, definitely pick this book up.