Manzu Islam’s admirable début novel is set in London in the 1970s, on the frontline of confrontation between the immigrant communities and the thugs of the National Front. In this world of Anti-Nazi League rallies, Rock against Racism concerts and street battles in Brick Lane, Tapan Ali, a student from Bangladesh, is brought face to face with the fragility of his circumstances in Britain. When his marriage of convenience to Adela, a fellow student, fails, he is reported to the immigration service and becomes an ‘illegal’ – a failed asylum seeker, in today’s hideous argot. Tapan enters a subterranean world – the secret city within the city – moving between squalid safe houses and exploitative jobs. His twin enemies are the Immigration Department surveillance squads and the informers, the ‘rats’ who betray illegals to the authorities.
Throughout it all he is sustained by a network of activists and comrades who manage the complex system of evasion and subterfuge. Chief among Tapan’s protectors are the militant Sundar Mia and his cousin Nilufar, a rebel against the strictures of her family, who becomes Tapan’s lover. Eventually, Tapan’s life as a ‘mole’ becomes unsustainable and he makes a decision to surface that will have profound consequences for himself and those around him.
Burrow is a sometimes uneasy mixture of gritty realism and outlandish fantasy, including a bizarre plot to tunnel under the Tower of London and ‘reclaim’ the Koh-i-noor diamond. Nevertheless, this is an absorbing account of those forced to live on the margins of society; lives that politicians and social engineers would much rather we failed to notice.Peter Whittaker