A rare English novel

I just finished reading Ian Rankin’s Fleshmarket Alley. What struck me was not so much the storytelling or the characterisation — Rankin has done better in earlier John Rebus novels which go deeper into characters and atmosphere. But this is a book one should read not only as a crime novel. What sets it apart is something else that is rare in British fiction. It describes the plight of the illegal immigrants and the wretched conditions in which asylum seekers are kept in Britain.

Rankin writes with his heart on his sleeve and shows the racism which exists in the housing estates, among police ranks and sections of the media. Of course, there are the good guys too. But reading this book made me pause and think: How often do we come across an English novel about the immigrants and the aliens? Rarely.

It’s true that curry restaurants are popular in Britain, there are Asians in every walk of life, and the majority of Britons don’t support the Iraq war.

But while the people behaved in exemplary fashion after the London blasts in July last year, how did they react when the police shot dead a man mistaken for a terrorist  just after the blasts? Angry protests did not flood the airwaves and the newspaper columns. He was a foreigner, a Brazilian.

Americans have had more to say and write about Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison than Britons about their own forces in southern Iraq. Maybe, there is no comparison between the two. But maybe the anti-war feeling is based on not just a desire for peace but fear of terrorist reprisals. NIMBY — not in my backyard, please!