Faith, love, and misunderstanding.
First Published: 10th August 2015
Date Reviewed: 17th August 2015
Kauthar, a white Brit, found herself in Islam. A lack of something in her life from childhood led to a conversion that she felt was always her destiny. And so she changes her name, wear hijab, learns to pray. She finds a husband, too, and sticks to her beliefs when questioned by her parents, who continue to call her Lydia. But as the world changes and thus affects Kauthar, she begins to change, too.
Kauthar is Ziervogel’s spectacular third novella, a book about identity and self-worth as much as it is about faith and religion.
Islam, and to a minor extent, Christianity, features in this book, but religion is not a point Ziervogel is making with her character (it is made, so to speak, but in general). What begins as a story about conversion with Islam at its centre (and a great one at that, details later) becomes a story about the English convert who doesn’t really understand the faith she has felt called to, and so ultimately you see religion both from those who truly believe and the convert who misunderstands. Suffice to say Ziervogel’s book is one of great tolerance, of teaching, and of comparisons that seek to show how people of different backgrounds can get along regardless of faith; Ziervogel shows how location is more important, how the place a person calls home, on the earth, defines who they are as much as their faith.
Conversion and religion isn’t the ‘issue’ with Kauthar, not really. It’s her lack of identity, the feelings of displacement she’s felt throughout her life that defines her adulthood. She views situations strongly – falling off the monkey bars at a park in childhood onto her knees she sees as her first step towards Islam, humble and profound. Kauthar, Lydia, has a lot of love in her life, but not quite enough nor of the type she ‘required’; a fine example is the way her mother continues to call her Lydia and wonders when her ‘Muslim phase’ will be over – you, the reader, whether or not you share her faith or even believe in religion at all, feel the brunt of such a brushing off of the faith as much as Kauthar does herself. You see first-hand, if you will, the reason why Kauthar feels the need to pen a long letter about scripture, which is similarly brushed off.
The book is set around 11th September and so Kauthar’s somewhat fragile state breaks apart completely when she feels the need to defend herself, to hide herself, and often out of her own fears rather than others’ opinions, though there is a scene that starts it off. Kauthar feels discomfort, the hatred that Muslims felt at the time, but takes it differently. It makes her defensive in a certain way because Islam has become so intrinsic to her self-worth and identity, something she has to prove as an outsider – Kauthar is Islam and you would certainly say towards the end that Kauthar regards Islam as her. No one is as faithful as her or correct in their faithful ways. In wearing a chador and later bhurka, she is hiding herself away from view, vocally to abide by Allah’s wishes but also, sub-textually, in ways the reader notices but perhaps not the character, to hide from herself and her past. From the husband she loved and who was one with her – now considered not good enough, not Islamic enough. In a way she also hides herself from her own faith which, as suggested by my paragraph on religions, she considers not godly enough.
Lastly, this is a book about love. Love for Allah – seen from many points of view – love for one’s spouse, and love for one’s home. It is in part Rafiq’s feeling that he ought to return to London, that that’s where he should be, that causes the gulf between him and Kauthar. And the love between the couple is true; you see the utter devotion Rafiq has for this woman he felt called to.
In all Ziervogel’s novellas, the prose is lovely but in many ways, most especially here, it’s not the point. The book is all about what isn’t said, what you can see in your imagination as a result of the words. And what’s so special about Kauthar is that you know without a doubt that you have the picture, the scene, correct, even though you know it’s not there on the surface, so to speak. There is nothing else like it. The word ‘unique’ is tossed about, given to everything so that it looses its meaning; in Kauthar it has a worthy cause.
This isn’t to say that this style runs throughout the book – reading between the lines for a whole 144 pages would be a daunting prospect – but it comes at the defining moment. The moment when you realise the section you thought might be info-dump really wasn’t and that it was the first obvious step towards what was going to happen. The moment where a book that you thought you had figured out fairly well takes a new turn, in a written version of what is happening in the character’s reality.
This is a book that takes conversion, the white convert in particular, and looks at the reasons people choose to make the change. It shows how profound, amazing, true conversion and finding one’s religious and faithful self can be, and the joy of that. And none of that is tainted because Ziervogel doesn’t make Kauthar and Islam part and parcel. A lot of research and knowledge accompanies this book.
Kauthar is a very different book about identity that outclasses many others. Highly recommended to those who enjoy the theme as well as those who like diversity and high tolerance in their reading when it comes to western fiction.
I received this book for review from the publisher.
August 19, 2015, 12:28 pm
Wonderful review, Charlie!
I absolutely loved this book. I’m not sure I’d say that Kauthar misunderstands the religion she converts to, more that she interprets it to fit her needs. Uses it to excuse actions and explain them. They are subconscious needs, such as a need to be loved or deemed worthy, but I think that is her driving force to finding meaning outside her world.
I completely agree with your point on identity, you see it as well – as you’ve mentioned – in how Rafiq identifies himself (which is as much English as Muslim).
I’m going to have to read Clara now (is that the title of her second novel?)