by Rana Asfour
Reem is a Syrian refugee who has arrived in London, trying to discover the whereabouts of her 10-year old brother, Adar. Obsessed with history and consumed by her fragmented memories of home, Reem is also hiding secrets she hopes will never be revealed. After being placed in a tower block, she befriends Leah; a single mother who has been forced to leave her expensive South Kensington townhouse. Their unlikely friendship supports them as they attempt to find their place in a relentless, heaving city, and come to terms with the homes they left behind - 'From the book's backcover'
‘The Tower’ is published by Beacon Books and will be released April 17
‘Home changes. When you leave and go back, it never feels the same again' - The Tower
When I reviewed British Palestinian author Shereen Malherbe’s powerful debut novel ‘Jasmine Falling’ back in 2016, I predicted great things for the writer whose distinctive narrative concentrated on revealing the plight of ‘the other’ allowing readers to hear, see and feel the different points of view with regards the same event – the Palestinian suffering - offering multiple perspectives into their world that may not be possible in real life. Malherbe’s core success lay in humanising the faces of the disregarded ‘other’ and with that she presented us with characters that were not only relatable but shared the everyday person’s dreams and hopes. Since then ‘Jasmine Falling’ has been voted in the top twenty best books by Muslim women.
The author has returned with another robust offering - ‘The Tower’ – a polished novel based loosely on the harrowing 24-story Grenfell Tower fire that claimed the lives of 72 people in the UK in 2017, an event that remains open to public enquiry and police investigations. In this novel Malherbe explores life in a tower block and what it's like to share a public space in daily proximity with residents who come from different religious, socio-economic or ethnic backgrounds and how that affects the general well being and social structure of the tower dwellers not only when times are good but when they are far from good as well.
‘The Tower’, set in London, opens with British thirty-year-old Leah and her ten-year-old son Elijah, on the curb of the tower block where they are planning to live. The same building that had forever ‘sucked up the sun in summer and exaggerated the grey sky in winter’ for six years while she lived in her now emptied townhouse in lush Kensington. Overwhelmed by their diminished circumstances, Leah is at a loss on how she’s going to cope with it all. However, on her first day there she meets long-time tower residents Mo and Nidal who strike up a quick friendship with young Elijah and slightly ease Leah’s doubts about her new abode.
In the next chapter we are introduced to a traumatised Reem, a Syrian refugee with little English, who only recently arrived to the UK and is on a quest to locate her missing ten-year-old brother Adar. Social workers have placed her in the apartment just below Leah and thanks to the ever-friendly Elijah, who seems to be at ease conversing and socialising with the tower residents, the two women strike a friendship as they both try to navigate the challenges of their altered circumstances. At the backbone of Reem’s story, the author has weaved in a mystery – that turns into an exposé with repercussions of violence - regarding the whereabouts of her brother, who supposedly boarded the same boat with her only to vanish when they reached the shores of the UK.
'...the building seemed to heave and breathe as if it was alive, as though at any moment it could burst under the seams of all the lives it was trying to hold in' - The Tower
As the novel is set in a crowded tower block, one would naturally expect to meet a host of colourful characters and we do. There are the delightful sisters Brianna and Chantelle, retired bricklayer Bill, Harold the tower’s occasional cleaner, the pivotal Mo and Nidal and many more who flit in and out of the novel. All in all Malherbe captures perfectly the chaotic thrum created by so many people living in close proximity to each other. The author’s grasp of the craft sees her expertly sifting through the noise, seamlessly navigating the plot towards the voices she wants her readers to hear, and the emotionally charged life-changing journeys she wants us to experience with them. The solid cast of characters - diverse, engaging and relatable – leave no doubt that Shereen Malherbe can spin a story and she can do so brilliantly while pulling at our heart strings. And by the time the tragedy strikes - which readers either familiar with the Grenfell tragedy or even going by the book cover alone are expecting – one holds one’s breath that the character one has become attached to is spared. I have yet to forgive the author for killing off mine.
Abraham Lincoln is famous for saying that ‘character is like a tree and reputation its shadow. The shadow is what we think it is and the tree is the real thing’. And Malherbe’s ‘The Tower’ proves the real thing in that its power lies in incessantly chipping away at the statistics, the clichés and stereotyping, the stories of refugees as terrorists, Muslims as villains and thugs, and white council residents as racists, instead she chisels faces, names, voices, fears and dreams serving as reminders that beyond all the labelling there be a human and that a constructive conversation about refugees, about the rich and the poor, about the downtrodden and the marginalised in society, about East and West divide, lies in emphasising our commonalities rather than our differences.
By the end of the novel the definitions blur with regards what home really means and who or what we turn to for sanctuary and comfort in times of loss and confusion regardless of where we’re from. Given the on-going global pre-occupation with the refugee crisis, as well as the rapid expansion of the world’s socio-economic divide, ‘The Tower’ by Shereen Malherbe is an important addition to the arsenal of literary work needed for better understanding of and insight into a troubled world that needs to be reminded of its values of compassion and empathy but above all else its humanity.
‘We all have dreams, but it isn’t about dreaming. It is about making the most of what we have … It may be thought that we thought something was bad for us, but in fact it is good’ -The Tower