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Tuesday 26 September 2023

‘Those People Next Door’ by Kia Abdullah

Published by HarperCollins,
3 August 2023.
978-0-00-843372-7 (PB)

When Salma Khatun and her husband Bilal decide to move to a quiet, suburban development, they hope to escape from the effects of stereotyping they have already encountered, and to protect their teenage son Zain from being sucked into destructive behaviour. At first, they receive the kind of cautious welcome newcomers always get – but before long their neighbours, Tom, Willa and their son Jamie, prove disappointing.

First Zain’s anti-racist banner is knocked over. Then their front window is smeared with paint – and that’s when the real trouble begins.

Kia Abdullah has created two very real families, both with problems and preconceptions. Salma is the crusader on her side of the fence; Bilal is the peacemaker, and Zain just wants to get on with the life he has chosen. Zain and Jamie find they have a lot in common and get on well, but their friendship is threatened when Salma and Willa get off on the wrong foot, and Tom reveals issues of his own.

She also creates a visual backdrop. The neat, well-regulated housing development counterpoints the slightly downmarket area where Bilal’s restaurant is located. The restaurant is vandalised, and squatters move in after they have painstakingly redecorated, and the contrast is heartbreaking.

On the face of it, this tense, sometimes chilling novel is about the way casual racism can escalate into all-out war between families – but as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that it’s a lot more complicated than that. Money becomes an issue for both families, though in different ways. There’s violence, but it’s unclear where it starts. Everyone’s motives and feelings are far from simple.  Misconceptions develop and get out of hand. And it’s plain long before the final dramatic twist that laying blame at one door or another is not a solution.

At first glance this may look like a novel about racism, but first and foremost it’s a novel about people. Kia Abdullah has taken a sensitive subject, created characters with both admirable and ignoble traits, and told an absorbing story with objectivity alongside keen observation. She is clearly a talent to watch.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Kia Abdullah is an author and travel writer from London. She has contributed to The New York Times, The Guardian, BBC and Lonely Planet, and is the founding editor of outdoor travel blog Atlas & Boots, read by 250,000 people a month.

Lynne Patrick
has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives in Oxfordshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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