This is a novel on a mission. The author, Abda Khan, is a lawyer and women’s rights campaigner with an impressive pedigree: winner of the Woman of the Year Award 2019 and highly commended in the 2017 NatWest Asian Women of Achievement Awards. She clearly cares deeply about issues of domestic slavery, indentured labour and the plight of women around the world (issues around which the plot of this novel revolves) and her knowledge and research shine through.
Farah Jilani is a woman of British Pakistani heritage and a solicitor in a flourishing city firm. They do a lot of immigration work and a lot of their clients are referred to them by Zaheer Mansur, a powerful figure in the Pakistani community. Attending a dinner one night at Zaheer’s house in London, Farah stumbles upon Razia, a poor maltreated woman flown in from Pakistan to serve as the Mansur’s enslaved domestic servant. Farah resolves to help free this woman and seeks the help of the Pakistani High Commission. Eventually Farah manages to gain Razia’s freedom and she is flown home to Pakistan. But Zaheer and his family are a vengeful lot and they are not content to allow their humiliation to go unanswered. Their actions force Farah to fly to Pakistan where she discovers the full scale of indentured servitude in the rural villages of Pakistan.
There’s a lot to like about this novel. As mentioned, the author has clearly done her research and it is obviously a subject she feels very strongly about. Just a quick Google search is enough to persuade the reader, if they were unaware of the issues already, that the situation for indentured labour in Pakistan is as bleak as the author describes. So, too, the reality of life as a domestic slave. Not a few novels and films have tackled the issue of sex trafficking (think of the Liam Neeson film Taken, for example) but very few have addressed domestic slavery, perhaps because it is more hidden. Prostitution, while not exactly out in the open per se, is visible on many inner-city streets, while domestic slavery is behind closed doors. Quite a few of those books and films that have looked at sex trafficking have arguably been exploitative (again, Liam Neeson’s Taken can be seen as an example of this, more an excuse to have Neeson beat up clichéd Albanian gangsters than a sober examination of the issues). Razia is not this, by following Farah’s investigation and pursuit of the truth, the novel gives space to really highlight the issues that are central to the plot.
There is nothing wrong with a novel aiming to address and highlight social issues. Some of the great novels have done just that. The trick is to ensure that the campaigning mission doesn’t get in the way of the plot, and/or is not laid on too thick so as to become a manifesto. On the whole the author manages this and Razia is both a polemic and an enjoyable read. That said, there were points in the narrative where dialogue turned into exposition, the characters spelling out why they were doing something or what a situation meant in ways that didn’t sound natural. Equally, there were occasions where the narrative became a little too clunky and plodding, the author a little too keen to get her message across.
That all said, on the whole this novel worked. It both brought a little-known injustice to the readers’ attention, while remaining an enjoyable thriller. I read this novel over three lazy summer afternoons and it kept me turning the page. Thus, this is a novel that deserves a wide readership and I hope it gets it.
James Pierson 3/3
Razia by Abda Khan
Unbound 9781783527045 pbk Jul 2019