Review: ‘The Go-Between’ by Osman Yousefzada

The Go-Between

The Go-Between is both a memoir and a love letter to the women forming the marrow of Yousefzada’s boyhood. Most notably, though, it serves as a reckoning with the more destructive facets of his past. 

Having grown up in an orthodox Muslim community, obscured by the lawlessness of Birmingham’s poorer regions, Yousefzada surrenders both the joyful and the unnerving memories framing this period. As a result, we witness the birth of a generational divide between the illiterate “Bushmen” and their English-commanding children. 

By detailing a pursuit of autonomy — determined by bouts of confusion and ravenous longings — Yousefzada illustrates how the blend of passion and violence can stain the mind, forcing the body’s eventual absolution. Tension makes its first appearance in the form of sex workers slipping beneath the veil of the night on the community’s God-fearing streets. 

The marriage between prayer and the consummation of flesh breeds sanctimony on more than one occasion, exposing the convulsions of morality. In this quiet storm, Yousefzada acts as the go-between connecting the world of women, seen as inferior and expendable, to that of the men.

As time goes on, and he finds himself expelled from the female realm, this crack begins to gnaw on his identity, pitting cultural constraints against the world of white privilege beckoning him forward. As can be expected, there’s a great deal of heartache coursing through the pages, but also an undercurrent of honesty that keeps the prose fresh. 

Wife beatings, murders, rigid power dynamics, and stifling gender roles all test the limits of cultural relativism. And yet, Yousefzada presents the mindset that is orbited by these elements in a way that inspires openness and compassion in the reader.

Above all, he allows us to grasp that cruelty and the patriarchy are often perpetuated through a lack of education and exposure — especially by the victims. Judgment is left up to us, leading to an interesting development. 

Namely, we begin to exercise our own impartiality, accepting the events not as fodder for a critical tongue, but as the stirrings of a roused mind. It makes sense, then, that humor brushes the edges of the pages. From the case of the appendix laid in sacrifice for some haram — forbidden — jelly, to the author’s anarchic passion for books, The Go-Between offsets thematic gravity with generous doses of drollery.

Its echo is magnified by the precision of Yousefzada’s memories. They accommodate the largeness of the people, tastes, and smells of his past with no trace of impulsivity, wrapping all his relationships in muscle and flesh. 

Naturally, this makes the bruising of these bodies all the more physical for the reader. Violence becomes ingrained in the mundane, acting as the basis of Yousefzada’s world as much as the trigger for its final dismantling. In a way, he is the band-aid that recounts the tale of its slow ungluing from inoperable faith.

The reign of Margaret Thatcher, rising unemployment, as well as an increase in religious fervor and racial antagonism all come together to form the background of this world. As a result, a socio-political testament to a time cast off by history is formed; one that allows us to drill into the bedrock of postcolonial racism.

Aside from their contextual merits, these events yank on the tensions that keep coiling as the memories surge. Clearly fed by Yousefzada’s love of reading, the prose feels delectable, forever tempting as it draws us deeper into the body of cerebral, pleasure-seeking rebellion. The cult of flesh, desired and feared — forbidden but relished in secret — gives rise to moments of betrayal, self-pleasure, cruelty, ecstasy. 

This angle inspires Yousefzada’s contemplation of the feminine form, particularly the way gaze-stopping clothing — such as a burqa — impairs the body’s shape and language. As an artist working with both fabric and build today, the author provides valuable insight into his first stirrings of wonder.

As always, there’s a thread of cheer and self-awareness interlaced with violence, challenged by it. Silence, we’re reminded, can be just as detrimental to the senses as a shooting fist. Maybe that’s why Yousefzada’s earliest recollections seem to glow, stoked by deviousness and the love that was yet unfiltered. In contrast, the presentation of his university years seems famished for more detail. 

Having said that, it makes perfect sense for the author’s formative years to take center stage, especially if we look at adulthood as the often traumatized by-product of our youth. And with some memories bound to pick at scabs with more ferocity than others, relegating them to supporting roles seems only fitting. 

Overall, Osman Yousefzada offers us a humane, tantalizing account of a life on the brink of release. Exquisitely written, his transformation serves to elevate the women in his life, allowing their stories to live on in liberated perpetuity.

Publication date: April 12, 2022 (Canongate)

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