Sunjeev Sahota’s first novel, Ours are the Streets, is presented as the last testimony of Imtiaz Raina, a young British Muslim about to become a suicide bomber; it’s his attempt to explain himself to the people he loves. We follow Imtiaz from his time at university in Sheffield, where he falls in love with Becka, the white girl he marries and has a daughter with (and who then willingly converts to Islam). After his father dies, Imtiaz goes to Pakistan for the first time, where he falls in with a group of radicals – which eventually leads him to the present moment, and the account we are reading.
Imtiaz experiences life at a junction of cultures, and the novel really brings home the complexity of his feelings. As a student, he seems quite comfortable in his Western lifestyle, and finds points of disagreement with his parents’ attitudes (‘What’s the point in dragging your life across entire continents if by the time it’s worth it you’re already at the end?’ he wonders, not really considering that his parents might have been thinking of his future when they came to England).
At the same time as this, however, Imtiaz wants his family to be happy – hence he’s keen for Becka to convert. One also sees that he feels something is missing from his life, though he’s not sure what. In Lahore, Imtiaz finds what he never knew he wanted: a sense of deep connection and heritage, though his family wouldn’t approve of the source. But, as his narrative voice (peppered with Yorkshire dialect, Urdu and Punjabi alike) indicates, Imtiaz has roots in East and West, and can’t truly leave either behind.
Ours are the Streets is a fine character study of Imtiaz. We see how and why he’s discontent with life in England; how his relationship with Becka deteriorates; and how his time in Pakistan changes him. The last steps on Imtiaz’s path between disaffection and radicalisation don’t have quite the same psychological clarity, which is perhaps the novel’s greatest weakness. But, overall, this is a strong debut from Sahota, who’s clearly a writer to watch.
(This review also appears at Fiction Uncovered.)