Felaheen: The Third Arabesk
(Earthlight, £12.99, hardback, 384 pages, 6 May 2003. Pocket
Books, £6.99, 356 pages, mass market paperback, this edition published
4 May 2004.)
It's answers time--or is it?
Bey is visited by the Emir of Tunis' closest advisor, who asks him to
investigate an attempt on the Emir's life. He is, as she points out,
an accomplished detective, and the Emir's son--or is he? Raf refuses,
but ends up going to Tunis anyway, partly to find out more about the
Emir and his family, and partly to find out more about himself. But
leaving his niece Hani and lover Zara out of the loop could prove Raf's
undoing. After all, he's only human--or is he?
The possibilities abound as Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Arabesk series
draws to a close. Raf has by now figured out that the fox Tiri, which
we were told was implanted in his head in his childhood, is in fact
his own inner voice, making Raf the very embodiment of Grimwood's assertion
that personality is an externally constructed thing. In its place, we're
given a few hints of a darker aspect of Ashraf Bey, as well as some
playful bait-and-switch revelations about his ancestry. The flashback
story this time is that of Raf's mother's encounter with a younger Emir
Moncef, which offers a few key pointers. Grimwood also throws in a murder
on the side to keep Raf busy while he's slumming it in the kitchens
of Tunis. Ultimately there's more mystery here than in who tried to
kill Emir Moncef, but the murder's resolution proves largely inconsequential.
This undoubtedly contributed to the impression I was left with at the
end of the book--that irrespective of the action, the attention to detail
and the great characterisation, it didn't, maybe couldn't quite match
up to the brilliance of its two predecessors. Certainly it's a more
disparate tale, which is ironic considering that one of its chief purposes
is to tie up the loose ends.
As before, Grimwood leads with several characters rather than just
one, most obviously Raf and Hani. The most prominent newcomer is the
Emir's eldest son, Kashif Pasha, who invites inevitable comparisons
with a certain real-world figure. He's decadent and amoral, but also
believably motivated, which is to Grimwood's credit. And moreover, he's
not nearly as mad as the Emir, who comes across more as a crafty old
codger than the lunatic we might have imagined from mentions in the
previous Arabesks. The kitchen staff of Tunis are all roundly depicted,
but have less impact on the Emir/Raf/is he? story and on Raf generally
than one might expect.
At the end of the day, 'Felaheen' wraps up Raf's story and keeps the
reader interested and entertained, and in that it's a thorough success.
Nevertheless, I was left feeling not entirely sated. Perhaps it's just
hunger for Jon Courtenay Grimwood's next novel.
Review by John Toon.
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