I Know What I Saw by Imran Mahmood

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Pushing the boundaries of the traditional whodunnit tale, I Know What I Saw by Imran Mahmood is a remarkable story of grief and memory.

“When I remember my life before, I am really reimagining it, in flashes, in tiny abstract glimpses. And in that memory,  I compose my own rhythm close enough to match the original percussion, but far enough to be no better than an improvisation inspired by it.”

The book centres around Xander, a smart, former financially successful character who has fallen down the ranks of society, escaping trauma through life on the streets. As modern-day London twists and slips from his grasp, he proceeds to collect fragmented memories from the city. I Know What I Saw is an attempt to piece these recollections together and understand his destructive past.

Mahmood’s focus on the power of place, in this case, London, sets I Know What I Saw apart from other novels in this genre. Xander traverses the city in an almost delirious state, as the reader gradually begins the question the reliability of the character and his perception of reality.

However, this isn’t an example of an unreliable narrator in an evil or immoral sense. Xander believes what he saw and it is his strong morals that propel the search for the truth, even when unfavourable. We comprehend just as much as Xander and though we can make some guesses about the outcome of his tale, we largely share his frustration in the clouded, muddled memories bubbling beneath the surface.

As Xander wanders around London, we get an idea of his sense of self and where he sees himself in the city. The constant analysing of places and rating their safety, as well as the tactile approaches he has adopted through his life outside, are exhausting and suffocating. Yet as he explains, this openness provides a feeling of escapism, away from his life between walls:

“It is disorienting to be in a room alone. Since I left home in favour of solitude and freedom, I haven’t had walls. Whatever safety they once provided is a memory. There’s no safety here, there’s only the rationing of space.”

Time and distance continuously merge into one. He walks for hours and finds his feet carrying him back to a place with a distant happy memory, pulled by the confines of his life before.

The two major tragedies Xander has experienced continuously flood his thoughts – he lives in a constant state of loss and heartache, exposing himself to the elements and the urban jungle to disassociate himself from reality.

While the relationship with his former partner is arguably the most important of the novel, driving Xander to confront and reconnect with reality, the tragic loss of his brother is another beautiful relationship. What begins as a friendly sibling rivalry exposes itself as something much deeper, haunting both the brothers. Some of the most touching moments in the novel come in the form of these memories. Our opinion of the pair shifts and changes as revelations are made, largely propelled by Xander’s relationship with his father.

“But there is a whisper of frustration through the hate. And it is love. The love won’t be rinsed away. It won’t leave me and him. It stains us both.”

These memories unfortunately fizzle out as the pace of the novel quickens, resurfacing only in quick snippets. It felt like there was much more for Xander to come to terms with regarding his brother and father however this unresolved conflict does offer something for the reader to later ponder.

I Know What You Saw isn’t neatly presented, yet that is exactly what gives the novel its uniqueness. The book gains enormous and exciting momentum and then comes to a wonderful, abrupt halt. I enjoyed the messiness – it reflected Xander’s own muddled state and gave the novel a realistic feel that is often sometimes lacking in other mystery tales.

“To be without memory is to be cut away from yourself.”

Though we reach a greater sense of clarity, we’re still left wondering about Xander’s outcome at the end of the book. Quiet chaos overshadows the unwritten future. The daze of the city, the unreliability of memories, and the uniqueness of grief are portrayed through this approach.

We do, however, experience a sense of freedom upon finishing the novel. While the future of Xander is unclear, he is finally free from the trappings of his memories, gaining greater control of his perception of reality.

I Know What I Saw is published by Bloomsbury Books and is available here.

Imran Mahmood

Review by Mariah Feria

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