Fatima Bhutto’s second novel, The Runaways, introduces a trio of Pakistani teenagers (Anita, Sunny, and Monty) from disparate economic backgrounds who are searching for meaning and purpose in modern Pakistan: typical adolescent growing pangs, identifying one’s place in a changing world, and coping with the temptation of radical, religious politics.
Anita lives in the slums with her weak, overwhelmed mother and older brother. She attends an advanced school where she is bullied and poverty-shamed. Her only friend is an aging, radical neighbour who exposes her to Urdu poetry and provides various material support to her family. Sunny is athletic and popular with girls of all shades and configurations, although he was unsettled by a trip to a gay bar with a friend from the gym. After being radicalised by videos and speeches of such famous Muslims as Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, he often expresses disgusted for his middle-class father who wants his son to embrace British values: “Why do we always ape the West,” Sunny rages. Monty is quiet, intellectual, and sensitive, caught between the divergent attitudes of his rich parents. His father growls that his mother is coddling their son. He becomes infatuated with a new girl from the wrong side of the tracks named Layla who is artistic, political, and dangerous.
Fatima Bhutto was born into a powerful political Pakistani family. Both her uncle and grandfather are former prime ministers. She has written a number of non-fiction books, including Whispers of the Desert at the age of 15.
Although I generally avoid blurbs, I inadvertently noticed a prominent phrase on the novel’s back cover that described how three young people will face the “most momentous decision of their lives.” This phrase cast a long shadow over the novel and focused on the existential intersection of such starkly different young people.
Unfortunately, The Runaways denigrated into a mundane thriller that camouflaged its “reveal” of its characters “most momentous decision.” It draped itself in garments of significance that it never earned the right to wear. Although all three teenagers explore and express attraction to radical Islam or political action, I never really understood why. Critical plot points and development happened off page and suddenly burst into the story in interminable backstory segments. In the novel’s second of four parts Monty and Sunny are suddenly dropped into Mosul where they are being trained to be terrorists. Sunny fumes at being betrayed by his cousin Oz when he learns that he is making presentations at conventions of rich Europeans. Although Monty was recruited by Layla, she has become distant, and he too feels cheated.
Bhutto structured her novel in a fragmented style that created a dizzying sense of discontinuity. Her limited, third person omniscient narration skitters among these three young characters in seemingly random fashion: 14 pages on Sunny, three pages about Monty, moving to Anita for nine pages, and then back to Monty for three pages.
Questions abound about identities and trust and motivations. Are the teenagers going to prevent a terrorist attack? Are they going to back out and reject any violence? Is Bhutto simply presenting a Hitchcockian red herring?
More disappointingly, Anita vanishes from an entire section, which was frustrating because she was easily the most compelling member of this trio of teenagers.
After the novel’s midpoint, I started listing what I concretely knew about the characters and their motivations. It was a very short list. Although I didn’t understand any of the characters or their motivations, I remained enslaved to their “most momentous decision” and how it shaped their lives. Unfortunately, such a vague patina of curiosity is inadequate reading motivation—unless one likes thrillers.
Any Cop?: Down with blurbs.