by Mariah Feria

Book Review: The Study Circle by Haroun Khan

A debut novel from a skilled and observant writer, The Study Circle is a work of fiction which offers an alternative look at urban Britain. Mariah Feria reviews the book’s timely and important themes, which discusses the representation of a community that is so often one-dimensionally shown.

Book Review: The Study Circle by Haroun Khan Subscript
The Study Circle by Haroun Khan, published in October 2018 by Dead Ink Books

Set in a tower block within South London’s Muslim community, The Study Circle by Haroun Khan (published October 2018 by Dead Ink Books) combines old and new thought to create a realistic, yet often unheard, voice of modern urban Britain.

We follow the lives of Shams and Ishaq, two distant friends who are reunited during a time of escalating troubled relationships between their faith, and the rest of the country. With an upcoming EDL march and increased external interest in their Muslim study group, the story is set in the present day, raising questions of belonging, traditionalism and community.

“We are now 20 years into talking about Muslims, yet novels published by British Muslims are scant.[…]“Muslims” aren’t part of the conversation. We are talked about and not with.”

Haroun Khan writing on Dead Ink Books blog

The main characters of Ishaq and Shams are what drive the entire novel. Each is simply surviving in this chaotic community, fuelled by outside influences and a desire to belong yet remain unique. We journey through the novel as both young men begin to understand how and what it means to be a young person of faith in present-day London. Ishaq must decide whether or not to denounce the traditional life in his tower block and continue onto ‘better’ things. While Shams begins to forge a life of paranoia and crime which he isn’t entirely sure of.

The book felt at times like a guidebook to everyday British Muslim lives. The conversations between Ishaq and his university peers at a rally on the campus, representing all sides of the argument, are particularly insightful. Ishaq debates with his own community, and then continues his discontent with an outburst at a lecture shortly after. He’s finding place in the arguments, and showing readers that the discussions are not as straightforward, or collective, as others initially may think.  

There are many who can go through a whole lifetime without seeing their lives represented, and even if they do it is through a completely alien filter.”

Haroun Khan on Dead Ink Books blog

The plot progresses through these unique voices, and each character is well considered. A personal favourite is Ayub, the troubled leader of the study circle who is trying to educate the younger characters and bury his past worries. He goes from being a minor character at the beginning, to developing into something much more pivotal to what the book is trying to say: how much of the past can you forget when trying to progress into the future?

The stand-out scene is the conversation between Ayub and the converted white Muslim, Adam. Through a few pages, we get raw emotion and uncover their hidden lives. We feel the desperation yet continued stoicism of Ayub, his need to remain grounded after everything he has seen – “We’re hated and it’s tough, but it’s a good forced-reminder. It compels us to remember our identity and think about the reality of our situation…forgetting is destruction, annihilation at our own hands or others. Always remember. Even if it is painful.” Adam sums up the changing tone of the country in just a sentence, saying others used to view him as “The eccentric English convert with a big beard. But with the climate now…nowadays…people I’ve known for years don’t look at me the same.”

“I felt what my characters feel, and writing in such a hostile age has been mentally exhausting.”

Haroun Khan on Dead Ink Books blog

This conversation takes place inside another major character in the novel: the tower block itself. The tiny details mentioned about the flats, the conversations between colourful neighbours, and the secrecy which we soon learn lurks behind every concrete corner; the environment is painted perfectly: “They listened as gusts of wind hit the building and were forced down the sides by impenetrable walls, creating bursts of air at the bottom. Gusts that plucked up plastic bags to dance in the wind, happily pirouetting and buoyed to new dizzy heights by the estate’s restive breath.”

It was also refreshing to read a different kind of ‘tower block’ portrayal, one that isn’t grey, bleak, crumbling and containing characters living solely in poverty. There are varying levels of privilege and representations which are all equally explored.

Portrayals of Muslims tend towards stereotypes[…]They may indeed be valid subjects,
but are so often rendered that they become a coarse, deluded ethnography with no serious capacity to represent the view of the characters themselves, just a projection of an outsider’s anxieties and their own pathologies.”

Haroun Khan on Dead Ink Books blog

Khan has found his voice in using his experiences, shining a light on them in a creative, well thought out manner. While the plot isn’t the most fast-paced, the characters and their dialogue more than makes up for any potential lull. The novel offers an added complexity and history which only those voices within The Study Circle will be able to tell us.

Haroun Khan is a writer from South London. The Study Circle is his first novel. Dead Ink Books is a small and experimental literary publisher based in Liverpool, UK.

The Study Circle is available to purchase here on the Dead Ink Books website.