Bilal, Parker - 'The Golden Scales'
She took the card absently without looking at it. "Thanks. Sometimes I think that talking about her is the only way I can keep Alice alive. I suppose you understand that, being a father?"
Makana, seven years a Sudanese exile in Cairo, wakes up on his run-down, flimsy houseboat and considers that he may have to find another job. Being a private investigator is absolutely not paying the rent. But luck can change, and this same morning Makana is summoned to the apartment of one of the richest men in Cairo. Frozen food, car franchises, insurance, real estate, Saad Hanafi has substantial stakes in them all. He also owns Cairo's football team, Dreem Teem. Their star player, Adil Romario, has gone missing and Hanafi doesn't trust the police he tells Makana. He also thinks that someone is trying to get to him through Romario. And for all of Hanafi's power and shady past, Makana can see fear in the rich man's eyes. He leaves Hanafi's apartment with an envelope full of money and a head full of questions. After spending an hour on the phone putting out feelers for information about Hanafi, Makana visits his friend's café. Money means lunch. But the meal is interrupted by the crazy Englishwoman. She comes back to Cairo every year, scouring the streets for her daughter who disappeared seventeen years ago - her beautiful four year old daughter Alice. On impulse Makana gives her his card. Just in case she needs his help. "Do you have a daughter?" she had asked him. "Yes." Makana had replied.
Parker Bilal is the pen-name of writer Jamal Mahjoub who was born in London of mixed British-Sudanese heritage. Brought up in Khartoum, Mahjoub returned to the UK to study and currently lives in Spain. He writes in English and has published six successful literary novels. Now, with THE GOLDEN SCALES and writing as Parker Bilal, he introduces us to Makana, a private investigator who is exiled from his home in Sudan. Makana is truly a man cast adrift in Cairo, living on a rotting houseboat and carrying dark memories of the consequences of his past as a police inspector in Sudan. The Cairo of THE GOLDEN SCALES is a city where extreme wealth co-exists alongside extreme poverty and Makana takes us through both of these worlds. Bilal writes sharply drawn vignettes of the characters Makana meets along the way: his friend the café owner, generous in nature, waistline and moustachios; the junk-shop owner with a forger's work-desk and a courtyard filled with songbird cages; Makana's landlady living with her family in a house built of crates and flattened jerry-cans on the banks of the Nile. And last but not least the repugnant Saad Hanafi, who surrounds himself with opulence and builds a Stadium containing statues of gods that bear his own features.
THE GOLDEN SCALES is set twelve years before the events of "The Arab Spring" and depicts Cairo as a vivid city and Makana as a survivor, with a survivor's caution, fatalism and dry humour. There are glimpses of the corrupt darkness and cruelty that accompanies power - whether that power is generated by wealth or the oppression of dogma. The convolutions of the plot and the linkages between its characters twist sharply towards the book's conclusion, almost too sharply for me to follow. But the concluding threads are tied up neatly, and despite a high die-off rate amongst the characters there are still enough friends and villains left standing to bode well for the continuation of the series. A witty and absorbing thriller, well-written and rich in its characterisation, I heartily recommend THE GOLDEN SCALES and look forward to reading more of Makana.
Lynn Harvey, England