This green and pleasant land by Ayisha Malik

What does it mean to be English? What does it take to divide a village? How do you build a mosque in a village? These are only a few of the many questions which beset Bilal Hasham as he considers fulfilling his mother’s dying wish to build a mosque in the small village of Babel’s End, while coping with several family crises and his own thoughts about life and death. A contemporary drama comedy in which a small village discovers where its loyalties lie in relation to a friendly family who suddenly become objects of suspicion. Not that everything was exactly peaceful in the village before the crisis;  “Tom’s bush” is overgrowing the road, the vicar thinks of his sermons while on a treadmill, and the local group of young men have been causing trouble with tragic results.  

This is a touching and engaging story of women with strong views, men living with confusion, and some younger people who struggle. I found it a lovely read with some brilliant characters, including the bewildered Bilal, the lovely Khala or Auntie that comes to live with the family, and the strident Shelley. It is beautifully plotted with twists and turns that work so well as emerging from the characters. The idea of building a mosque in the village really sorts out the people of the village, even between married couples, and the book really flows well navigating between deep emotions and near farce. As language, culture and feelings emerge in this effective book, I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book. 

The book begins with the death of Sakeen, as she considers her life and knows that after her husband left her she had to learn to understand. After her death, Bilal returns to his village where he realises “Even now, years after moving to the village, the absurdity of its trials didn’t cease to surprise Bilal.” Sure enough there are those, led by Shelley in her dominating way, who are creating a fuss about an overgrown bush. When Bilal timidly suggests his idea of building a mosque, strong emotions are released. Mariam, his wife, was another woman abandoned soon after marriage, also leaving her with a son who becomes Bilal’s stepson. She is insecure and seeks help from self help videos, especially when her ex husband reappears on the scene. Rukhsana is the hapless aunt who lost a much loved husband and has since lived with Sakeen, now having moved to Babel’s End, but who discovers that she cannot speak enough English to get on with the villages, but strikes up an unusual friendship with an unlikely individual. Richard is the vicar, but has many inner debates about faith, about helping sort out the village’s disputes and his relationship with Alice. 

I really enjoyed this book as it represents a picture of life in a village where there is a lot going on, and a person in the shape of Bilal who is struggling to make sense of a bewildering set of circumstances. It deals with some big questions of life, faith and the nature of love, but also fits in some jokes and well observed complex characters. It could be seen as a light read on some levels, but it also includes some deeply affecting moments as individuals try to discover what is truly important for them. I recommend this skillfully written and enjoyable book for its characters and the situations that they find themselves in as offering a view of contemporary life.