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A place where home is an elusive ideal

bookIn the last decade, British authorities uncovered evidence of massive sexual abuse and human trafficking in Rotherham, South Yorkshire. Two years ago, in a blistering investigative report, Professor Alexis Jay and her committee conservatively estimated that 1,400 English girls had been sexually abused or traded for goods and favors by a network of older men, mostly British-Pakistani Muslims. The committee charged both police and social workers with negligence and in some cases, with deliberately overlooking the sexual assaults for fear of offending minority communities. Further investigations revealed other communities where such abuse was either ignored or unreported.

While bureaucratic incompetence and timidity were both enormous factors in this scandal, the families of these girls must also bear some of the blame. Nearly all the victims came from broken homes where the “care-givers” lived on the dole. In many cases, adult supervision was nil and the girls were left to fend for themselves. Some of them tried to report these rapes, others remained silent, and still others attached themselves to their assailants, perhaps finding there more love than they did at home.

In his novel The Disappeared (Bloomsbury Reader, 2015, 282 pages, $14.99), English philosopher and commentator Roger Scruton turns a light on this shadowy world of kidnapping, sex, lust, and secrets. By creating a platoon of characters, ranging from a kind-hearted schoolteacher to a young Afghan woman being forced into marriage, Scruton allows us to understand the forces at play on this stage of violence and evil.

Justin Fellowes is an environmentalist and heavy metal fan smitten by Muhibbah, an Afghan refugee with a dark past and two brothers who abduct English girls and pack them off to Eastern Europe. Justin’s new assistant, Laura Markham, has just settled into her flat when she is mistakenly abducted by Muhibbah’s brothers. With the help of Yunus, the younger brother who comes to admire her, Laura works out a plan of escape from her captors.

In the meantime, Stephen Haycraft, a teacher of literature at St. Catherine’s Academy, becomes aware that one of his students, Sharon, is suffering some savage ordeal which she keeps locked in her heart. As he attempts to help this girl, who lives like so many of the other students in Angel Towers, an enormous decrepit block of government sponsored flats, Stephen falls in love with her, with the innocence she has maintained and with the courage with which she has faced her abusers. 

As The Disappeared progresses, the lives of all these characters become entwined by circumstance, culminating first in a miscarriage of justice, then murder, and finally redemption.

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In addition to its fast pace and realistically drawn characters, The Disappeared is worth reading because of the author’s sense of fair play and his familiarity with the religious tenets of Islam. Scruton writes here with the heart of a novelist and the mind of a philosopher, a combination that allows for many insights into the awful tangle of different cultures grinding against one another. 

We meet Iona, for example, a cynical social worker whom Justin befriends. Through her we see how those in her profession fear being labeled as aggressive or racist if they pursue too hotly tips in these abuse cases. As she changes, as she begins to dig into Sharon’s past, Iona also shows us a woman set on finding justice for Sharon and others like her. Through Muhibbah, we come to know the constant tension many young Muslim women face, the anxiety and stress that comes from trying to live in two radically different cultures. Then there are Abdul Kassab and his son Farid, Shi’ite Muslims from Iraq who have escaped death by fleeing to England. Abdul is a visionary and a practitioner of Sufism who “looked forward to the day when his sons, Farid and Hazim, would study the Holy Koran, the Christian Gospels, the works of Plato and the poetry of Ferdowski and Shakespeare, side by side with Sunnites, Christians — and yes, if any still remained in Basra, Jews ….”

The Disappeared is also an elegiac tribute to a disappearing European civilization. Sharon, Muhibbah, Stephen, Farid, Justin: all of them, at one time or another, read the poetry of the West or reflect on its art and music. At one point, when Sharon is visiting Stephen’s apartment, she picks through a copy of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and Stephen explains to her its significance in European civilization. She replies by saying: “Yes, sir. But Europe was a place then. There’s no places now.” 

This sense of displacement runs throughout the novel. With the exception of Abdul and his sons, the poor who live in Angel Towers have no sense of home, no feeling for their flats or for the neighborhood. The same holds true for those who, like Stephen and Justin, live in better apartments. Rather than becoming an idea to be celebrated, Scruton seems to say, multiculturalism has instead produced a fractured society in which no one has a home.

In The Disappeared, and in his earlier nonfiction The West and the Rest, Roger Scruton has given us valuable insights into our contemporary clash of cultures. 

Highly recommended.

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