~Introducing the Cast~
In an unnamed but hostile African country Greg wakes up to find himself the only survivor of a plane crash caused by a terrorist attack. When a jeep arrives he's shocked to discover that far from trying to rescue survivors, the men are intent on looting everything worth having, smashing gold teeth from the mouths of dead men and releasing their lust on the still warm body of a dead woman victim.
In Ethiopia a young Eritrean taxi driver falls in love with a local girl and against all odds she leaves her Christian family, converts to Islam and follows him back to Eritrea. Their happiness is rocked by a tragic road accident and an ensuing 'blood feud' that puts the family's lives in jeopardy.
In the inner cities of England the husband and wife are separated by the process of fleeing their homes in search of asylum. The wife and her children are repeatedly knocked back by the social services system, abused by landlords, ripped off by fraudsters yet they continue to dream of a better future and work tirelessly towards improving their lot. The husband - unaware that his family are even in the same country - falls into depression and under the influence of religious extremists.
In a quiet Oxford suburb Greg's wife Nuala refuses to accept that he's dead, campaigns to be allowed to visit the crash site and meets resistance at every turn. Trying to stay brave for the sake of her children she works through all the phases of loss - anger, denial, sorrow and slowly but surely starts to rebuild her life.
~Four Books in One~
Divinity Road tracks the four characters - Greg and Nuala, Aman and Semira - weaving their stories together across 276 pages of finely crafted story telling. I was totally hooked throughout and read it in under a day, desperate to see where the story would lead me and how the characters' tales would be pulled together and entwined - or perhaps never find each other.
I picked up the book with few expectations - the small publishing house, the slightly odd typesetting and the thicker than normal pages were all tell-tale signs of the small print runs that often suggest vanity publishing and lowered my sights. These were all signs that made me expect very little from this book. When the publisher had offered a review copy to the curiousbookfans.co.uk site, I'd taken it on because I knew the street - Divinity Road - from which it takes its name. It was a pretty silly reason to request a book but really serendipitous. I loved it throughout. I didn't always believe parts of the tale, found some areas just a bit too unbelievable, but was totally willing to suspend that disbelief in pursuit of a darned good tale.
~In Parallel but not in Sync~
Greg's African ordeal was compelling - I could feel the heat, smell the fear and picture every move. I couldn't believe the speed with which he learned to communicate with some of the other supporting characters, but I accepted it in my desire to see him find his way home. Nuala's pain was tangible - but in a strange way her strength was both inspiring and hard to handle because it seemed so unnatural. As readers we know Greg's out there and that Nuala's the only one who still believes he's alive and we share the frustration of her situation.
For me Semira's story is the most involving as we follow her through the sink estates of Bristol and Oxford as she tries to keep her children safe and to crawl her way through the social services systems. There could be nothing less 'Morse and Mortarboards' about the Oxford that she and Nuala inhabit. Receiving their 'Indefinite Leave to Remain' confirmation should be the turning point for Semira and her kids but still society conspires to work against her but her optimism and determination remain as much a part of her as her religious faith. After the family are forced to hide out in the staff room of the college where Semira is studying and where Nuala is teaching, the two women are brought together to support each other through their trouble.
~Based in Experience - both his and that of those he knew~
Martin Pevsner clearly knew his stuff when he pulled this book together. He'd worked in African countries and taught asylum seekers and immigrants in a local Oxford further education college. They say you should write what you know and he's demonstrated that admirably. At times I was really shaken by the places he took us to - as I mentioned I know the area of Oxford where he gives Greg and Nuala their home but I also lived in the rough bits of Manchester where he placed Aman during his asylum search. Levenshulme and Longsight - just like Divinity Road and the Cowley Road area of Oxford - were all places from my student days which 20 years ago were full of students and now are home to a very different group of people without even less money that we had. I knew the Blackbird Leas estate where Nuala teaches Semira from charity projects I was involved with as a student. There was an eerie sense that the writer had been looking over my shoulder when he put the geography of the English part of Divinity Road together.
Pevsner is careful to avoid going too far. He could have pulled off the cheesy and emotional ending that every reader will probably be expecting but he chooses not to. We're left just wondering what might happen in the next few hundred unwritten pages. Whilst he puts the people in his African plot through a living hell, he pulls back from the worst abuses that could so easily have tempted him to make Semira's lot even worse. This sense of careful moderation helps to make the whole story much more accessible. It's all too easy to go too far but Pevsner holds back each time.
The two key characters are the wives and in Divinity Road you'll find a tale written so well that it's really hard to believe (sorry guys) that it was written by a man. Fortunately when I did a Q&A interview with him for Curiousbookfans.co.uk he wasn't offended by that comment - in fact he said he was flattered. Pevsner has done a fantastic job of getting into the heads of the two women in a way that few male writers are able. It's not ALL perfect - for me there were just too many extracts from the Koran that I confess I tended to skip over - and as I mentioned some plot-lines in Greg's story were a little hard to swallow - but on the whole this is a thoroughly enjoyable and very rewarding read. I sincerely hope that it will make readers think twice about the prejudices society throws at refugees though I rather suspect that it will be preaching to the converted and those who most need to read it may be the least likely to be attracted to it. Martin Pevsner really is a writer to put on your watch list if this multi-dimensional tour de force is anything to go by.
Divinity Road by Martin Pevsner
Published by Signal books, October 2010
With very great thanks to Signal books for providing a free review copy.
If you'd like to know more about the writer and the background to Divinity Road, you can find an interview I did with him on curiousbookfans.co.uk