Listening to The Writer and the Critic recently (a monthly podcast out of Australia), there was a brief discussion on the value of fragmenting a narrative: does it enhance or detract from a novel? My personal opinion that it is very similar to using present tense narrative; sometimes an author just tries to be different to no effect for no other reason than to break the monotony of their style, and I think the same applies to fracturing a narrative. It can also be a pointless way of rearranging how a story is told simply to try something different. But there are also times that it complements the subtext under discussion. Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Arabesk series, as I mentioned in my review of Pashazade, is one such set of books, of which Effendi, the subject of this review, continues consistently.
Introduced in Pashazade, Ashraf al-Mansur is a young man with a big question mark plastered over his past and present. Shoved into a situation he himself only marginally accepts, believing the ancestry he is presented is just as ambiguous as knowing for certain how he was altered in childhood and where his present-day life is headed. Thrust into the position of Chief of Detectives at the outset of Effendi, the uncertainty continues. A brutal set of murders targeting Zara’s father Hamzah right at the start of his new career, he has no time to step delicately into the role, the city catching fire around him in the aftermath of the grisly deaths. El Ishkandryia threatening to collapse inwardly, Raf must navigate a slow boiling stew of commercial and political interests toward helping the people he cares about toward a peaceful resolve that does not entirely destroy the city.
The title ‘Effendi’ in fact referring to Hamzah, not Raf (at least, I think), the novel not only hinges upon the mafioso with a heart, but branches out into several other character perspectives. Encompassing far more points of view than did Pashazade (and does Felaheen), the Khedive, Colonel Abad, Senator Liz, (French guy), Avatar, General Pasha, Zara, Hani, Raf, Eduardo, Lieutenant Ka, Sara, and others have the story told from their point of view at various, occasionally limited, moments. Grimwood seemingly attempting to paint the larger picture of life in El Ishkandryia, Effendi’s list of dramatis personae is a complex, multi-colored affair.
Thus while Pashazade focused heavily on Raf and Felaheen returns to him, Effendi is the broader scene. Drawing in foreign interests—Germany, France, and the US, Grimwood likewise takes a look at the child soldier in north Africa’s deserts, the novel’s flashback episodes centering around one Lieutenant Ka. A pubescent fighter in a war for which sides and motivations are never as clearly defined as the hardships and quest for survival, Ka reveals that being a youth is beyond difficult in a land ravaged by war and poverty.
In the end, Effendi is a broadening of the canvas upon which the Arabesk trilogy is painted. Raf, Zara, and Hani’s characters evolve a step or two, but by and large the secondary figures feature as a group, in particular how the city is dealing with internal and external issues, to increase the swell of story. A larger picture of the doings and happenings, Grimwood continues to write in the same sparse, noir style, everything consistent with what was established in Pashazade. Readers will thus be glad to know that the trilogy continues in good hands. All that remains is for Felaheen to answer the remaining questions…