If you didn’t know The Study Circle was a debut novel before you read it, I guarantee you never would’ve guessed. I certainly didn’t. Haroun Khan’s first novel is raw in subject matter and sophisticated in style. In an essay titled “My Political Novel”, Khan explains how the novel was a written over a two-year period. For him, it was a torturous and mentally exhausting time. I sincerely hope that he feels it was worth it. I know I do.
‘It was possible to get on with your life, shuttling between work and home, without spending too much time on the streets or getting involved with the neighbours’ issues, good or bad. Still, during long, black, winter evenings when walking through shadows, Ishaq felt like he was rolling dice at a casino. Eyes forward. Body tensed. Breath held. Hoping that you weren’t the next victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.’
The novel opens with protagonist Ishaq, a university student who attends a Muslim group which studies the Koran on the 17thfloor of a South London block. In the second chapter, we meet Shams, an old friend of Ishaq’s, who is looking for work. The two run into each other and the rest of the book follows their challenging journey through modern Britain. At its core, the novel is about what it means for different humans, religions, belief systems and values to exist in the same space. For this reason, The Study Circle is one of the timeliest debuts I have ever read. Not only do we need to ask ourselves these questions, but we need to ask them now.
‘… the underground map and its rainbow lines a vast landscape of possibility and adventure, new worlds other than the constricted horizons of the council estate…’
When reading the novel, it’s obvious that Khan is a South London local himself. He does a remarkable job of characterising moden Britain, and London especially. Every corner of the city, from the tube stations to the council estates, is described in minute detail. While the novel is a guidebook of England’s capital city, Khan takes his readers through the backstreets, the sort of areas you wouldn’t be shown on an open-top bus tour.
‘Maybe he was being harsh but, even though they traced the same footprints and shared the same spaces, they lived separate human realities, a vibration of different frequencies existing in the gaps of each other’s oscillations.’
Although I was impressed by the geographical landscape of the novel, Khan’s greatest feat is the creation of his characters. Protagonists Ishaq and Shams are not confined to the pages of the book. They are living, breathing, believable people. They are young boys navigating uncharted territory, or territory which has been unfairly charted for them. Regardless of their race or religion, every character wants the best for the people they love. I challenge you to think of anybody in your life who doesn’t want the same. Sometimes heart-breaking and always honest, Khan’s portrayal of universally human struggles is what makes the book stand out from other debuts on the shelf.
‘This was England. There was no distance, no space in this tarmacked landscape. They had no choice but to interact.’
The Study Circle asks difficult questions about how Muslims are and should be viewed in contemporary culture, especially in an England with a Brexit backdrop. In exploring themes of race, identity and community, Khan has an enviable way of depicting his characters’ anxieties through prose which is calm and collected. Khan tells it how it is, while simultaneously making us question about how it should be. I’d be lying if I told you The Study Circle was an easy read, but I’d be doing a disservice by not calling it a worthy one.
The Study Circle by Haroun Khan is published by Dead Ink and available here.
Haroun Khan is a writer proud of his South London roots. Based upon his own experiences growing up, The Study Circle is a groundbreaking debut novel looking into the state of modern Britain through the lives of urban Muslim youth.
Also a great insight into the book can be found on the Dead Ink Website here.
Reviewed by Alice Kouzmenko
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