This is a book I nearly didn't buy at all. Billed as a story about strife in a Pakistani family forty years ago, and by an unknown author, it didn't sound exactly tantalising. In fact, it was only because it was recommended by a work-mate that I thought, what the heck, I'll give it a try. So when it arrived in the post, I settled down to read it with a mug of coffee, fully expecting to get bored in no time at all. Sure enough, the first page was a load of nonsense about fairy-tale princesses and witches. Then the story lurched to over-the-top parents having a fight in the kitchen. So far, so bad. But the writing style was nice, and there was nothing too difficult or demanding (not surprising, as everything is seen through the eyes of a little girl), so I persevered.
And soon enough - wham! By the middle of chapter 3, I realised I was being relentlessly sucked into Dilly Shah's world; Almas Khan was using her pen like a magic wand, and I was being whisked back through time and across cultures; a few chapters later, it felt as though I'd known Dilly all my life - and there I was, sitting on a garden wall in Gomshall Road, watching the Shah family going about their lives. I was mesmerised, totally and utterly hooked. I still don't know how Khan did it, but I couldn't put the flipping book down till I'd finished it, many hours later.
What I especially admire about Poppadom Preach is the way characters and events are brought to life before your eyes. Everything - and everyone - seems so real I had to keep reminding myself this is fiction. The narrative and dialogue never sag, the pacing is fast but not too fast, and just about every page has something hilarious, absorbing, reflective or intelligent to share. The comedy comes thick and fast; some witty, some bawdy, much of it when you least expect it. And when the shocks arrive, Khan knows exactly how to deliver the hammer blows with staggering power and emotion.
Of course, there's also quite a lot about what goes on behind the closed doors of British Asian families. After all the media stories about forced marriages and honour killings, I thought I knew everything that's worth knowing about the tensions in immigrant communities. Besides, I've seen Bend it like Beckham, Eastenders, Corrie... what more could there be to learn? Answer - plenty! The author is obviously aware that not all her readers are Asian, but she's skilfully negotiated the dilemma of how to keep white readers on board without patronising Asians. Her approach, which I think works well, is to throw us in at the deep end in Chapter 1, then keep us afloat with just enough information to allow it all to make sense. If only school lessons were like this - it's a laugh-out-loud learning experience.
I've never read anything like Poppadom Preach before; I'm not sure anyone else has ever written anything quite like it. Has Almas Khan invented a whole new branch of fiction? It's certainly not chicklit/romcom, nor is it dry and academic. And it certainly isn't a `misery' book where the child is a victim and the adults are horrible. If I had to describe it in terms of other works, the best I could do is: East is East meets Angela's Ashes, starring The Simpsons. With some Jane Austen, and maybe a touch of Quentin Tarrantino. (A note of caution: this book contains a significant amount of bad language, and some disturbing scenes. There's no `parental guidance' sticker on my copy, but personally I don't believe it's suitable for anyone under 16; others may disagree.)
Poppadom Preach is quite simply a great read. It's an engrossing novel that had me laughing and crying, and feeling as though I was right in the middle of the riotous, heart-warming and heart-stopping action. Most definitely one of the best books I've read. Oh, and the chapters are short, so in theory (ha!) it's an easy book to pick up and put down. I wouldn't be surprised if it's a massive hit with commuters and sunbathing holidaymakers.
After I'd finished reading Poppadom Preach I spent some time looking back through it. And that's when it hit me; this book is much, much smarter than it seems at first glance. Lurking just below the surface, there's a whole load of stuff waiting to be discovered. In fact, in my humble opinion, it's a bit of a masterclass in how to construct the perfect novel. Characters and the ideas they represent are introduced carefully and allowed to develop their own personalities; there are no stereotypes here. Comedy and tragedy are interwoven, just as they are in real life; `nice' people do horrible things, and vice versa. Even Dilly, the reader's guide on this adventure, is as stupid as she is wise, and as much a bully as she is a victim. We might love her, but don't other people, especially her neighbours, hate her with good reason?
And if we dare to roam outside the boundaries of Dilly's thoughts, we make discoveries of our own, that have never occurred to Dilly: If Mr Baba is evil, why does he have so many friends? If Estie is so virtuous, why is she selfishly succumbing to one of the seven deadly sins? Afeeka is undeniably stupid, so how does she outmanoeuvre everyone and get what she probably wanted all along? Mr Barratt is an intelligent headmaster - but he's easily outwitted by a little girl. And what on earth are we supposed to make of the wonderful Climax, the hedonist in the attic - is she a heroine, a villain, or just one of the best comic creations of all time?
We can try to pigeon-hole all these people if we want to, but we'll come a cropper every time, because Khan knows that real life isn't like Disney, and real people rarely fit into simple categories. In terms of bringing characters to life and making them three-dimensional, this book is right up there with the best of English literature.
I'm sure there are many social and political lessons to be learned from an analysis of Poppadom Preach, but I think I'll leave that to people more qualified than me. The main thing I got out of reading it wasn't any kind of important "message", it was just hours and hours of fun, plus some genuinely gripping white-knuckle, sweaty-palmed moments. The fact that there are hidden meanings beneath the humour might be testament to Khan's genius, but it doesn't detract from the fact that this book is first and foremost FUN. I challenge anyone to read it and not laugh a lot, and maybe cry a little.