Beauty is the outstanding first novel of British author Raphael Selbourne, winner of the prestigious 2009 Costa First Novel Award (formerly known as the Whitbread Literary Awards). The novel’s plot is seemingly predictable–an illiterate girl runs away from an abusive home where she had been forced to marry a much older mullah (religious man) at the age of fourteen. However, Selbourne’s pen transforms the story into an insightful glimpse into British-style multiculturalism and immigration, from the point of view of a young woman. Beauty Begum’s tragic tale is one of a young immigrant woman doubly alienated by her family and her environment.
Beauty's timely publication in 2009 is worthy of note, given the paranoia and terror surrounding the tragic London bombings in 2005 and the overt racial profiling that has been ongoing in the Western world. Writer and filmmaker Hanif Kureishi (himself a Whitbread prizewinner) had previously focused in on the immigrant experience and depicted the struggles of Muslim immigrant families in Britain in his screenplays for My Beautiful Laundrette and My Son the Fanatic, for example. Selbourne’s novel can be seen as a valuable continuation of these themes.
Although Beauty never directly addresses the reasons and context for the racism it exposes, it presents us with diverse xenophobic scenarios that are all equally deserving of consideration. It also brings to light the very complex circumstances of women immigrants, domestic abuse, and the everyday struggle of women who are caught between lived tradition and modernity. The author, previously a student of Islamic Studies, is clearly knowledgeable about the topic, a fact that counteracts any reservations we might have about the author’s being just another patriarchal gaze on the “subordinate.”
Selbourne’s secondary characters are rich in detail and complexity. From Mark, the gruff bloke who takes Beauty into his dog-infested home, to Peter, the newly single, perverted neighbor who fantasizes about seducing her, all the characters are cleverly constructed. However, Selbourne’s tour de force lies in his depiction of the feminine psyche. Beauty is very much a convincing female character, of the depth and quality that I had previously only encountered in Roddy Doyle’s Paula Spencer from The Woman Who Walked into Doors. The writer’s sensitivity is key to developing a plausible protagonist.
Raphael Selbourne establishes himself in the proud tradition of English-language writers who manage to paint realistic and tender portraits of specific social groups. Having lived in West Midlands teaching English, he captures the much-ridiculed West Midlands accent in his writing in the same way Roddy Doyle captured the Irish brogue in his novels. Selbourne’s Bangladesh-born Beauty speaks a drawl that is perfectly representative of the West Midlands (UK) setting of the novel. Furthermore, the author scatters Bengali terms in the novel, such as Beauty’s interjections, or explanations for her reactions, thoughts, or actions. Admittedly, Beauty is occasionally an exercise in reading; one must decipher, literally, the spoken language that the author has committed to the page. However, do not let this dissuade you from reading this engaging and thoughtful novel.