This chilling YA novel explores the disbelief and then despair of Sat, a young British Punjabi Sikh lad who is haunted by the disappearance of his married older sister, Jas. The prevalence of so called ‘honour’ violence and killings is generally acknowledged as an unresolved social problem but the use of the word ‘honour softens what is actually domestic violence and murder. There is absolutely no justification for either, no matter what is deemed to be traditional behaviour. In the published interview at the back of the book, the author Bali Rai clearly states his personal abhorrence of such crimes. He was first inspired to write about the subject by the real case of Kiranjit Alhuwalia in 1989 who killed her husband after enduring years of domestic violence and was then imprisoned for murder.
Rai explains that he deliberately shifted the criminal aspects of the mysterious disappearances onto the women’s in-laws and associates rather than their own families. He did this because he wanted to explore the feelings of the brother and his frustration at not being believed by his parents and brother when he expressed his concerns about the cover story presented by his brother in law. He later learns that they have fabricated false texts and Facebook accounts, but still struggles to persuade them to rise above their initial disgust at the alleged disgrace. I think that this works well because the reader is immediately on side with him as we learn about his life in a traditional British Asian family and some of the many clashes and contradictions that he experiences in terms of expected behaviour in line with culturalseems that his teenage voice is that of the author who likewise was frustrated at needing to assert his independence and interests shared with friends instead of conforming to attendance at weddings etc. Despite this ongoing conflict Rai paints a picture of an affectionate close knit and hardworking Leicester family whose lives are completely torn apart by what is seen to be the humiliation of a married daughter running away from her husband with another man, particularly as he is a Muslim.
Sat has a secret non Asian girlfriend, Charlotte who acts as a device for explaining some of these cultural contradictions directly to the reader. When she is unable to cope with his fixation on his sister’s disappearance the relationship ends. He later has a less believable relationship with his brother in laws ex girlfriend, Laura. For me, this feels unnecessary and, given that she has colluded in his sisters disappearance, I’m not convinced that he would become emotionally and sexually entangled.
As Sat begins to investigate the sudden disappearance of Jas, we learn that she has married into a nasty family who have previously disposed of another wife for financial reasons and successfully escaped prosecution due to lack of evidence. They are part of a violent, drug ridden and corrupt nightclub underworld and exude frightening power and influence in Derby, Leicester and even parts of India. To make this point, there are some graphically violent scenes of domestic violence. These are not gratuitous but necessary to emphasise the horror of the two women’s experiences.
It is an angry book, partly inspired by real events in the Asian community, including Rai’s own extended family. Sat is a strong, brave and principled character who doggedly fights for justice despite being terrified of reprisals. It contributes to an understanding of what is meant by ‘family’ and ‘honour’ in any community. Rai is asking his readers to reflect on big questions about love, loyalty and decency which are meaningful whatever cultural background.