As in the epigraph from Franz Kafka, “to write prescriptions is easy, but to come to an understanding with people is hard.” And so it goes in our February Book of the Month, Tell Her Everything, the third novel by Mirza Waheed. We are asked to extend ourselves and challenge our understandings of the origins of evil, where it comes from and how it can be forgiven.
Dr K., a retired surgeon, spends his time planning his confession and revising his life. He anxiously awaits the arrival of his estranged, now-grown daughter, Sara, who he has not seen since he sent her away to boarding school after the death of his beloved wife. Propelled by grief, he plunged himself into solitude, and spends much of his life since contemplating the decisions he has made and trying to reconcile the damages he has done.
Raised from humble beginnings, Dr K. recounts leaving his childhood home in India for a dream job in a state-of-the-art company in an unnamed city in the Middle East, working for an oil monarch. For the first time, he has more money than he knows how to manage, and it comes as a welcome drop of rain after a lengthy drought. He vows that his wife and daughter will never struggle, and he will do anything to make sure of it. But there’s a catch: his dream job quickly becomes a nightmare that will haunt him for the rest of his life.
Made to perform amputations on those deemed to have played around the law, to which he obliges so he can continue paying for Sara’s education and living his life of comfort, this novel is a frenzy of reconciliation and remorse. With recurring images of dismembered limbs and a pervading struggle with guilt and responsibility, Waheed invokes the question: where is the line between good and bad? He also raises a striking comparison between work and the self. As Dr K. himself says in his imagined conversation with his daughter, “I had no choice, Sara, which is the simple and absolute truth. It was my job.” To what point does a job become the person?
From the very opening page, the reader is given the cryptic sense that something ominous lurks beneath the surface of the seemingly carefully composed prose. This is not a typical immigrant success story, as the protagonist recalls his life in circles, hinting at dark pasts without having the acceptance or confidence to describe them fully. As a character-driven novel, this further fuels the idea that Dr K. is racked by guilt and suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress as he evades the truth of his story. And, of course, he would, as he wants more than anything to reconnect with his daughter, not to horrify her. How can he tell her everything when he can barely believe it himself?
While the subject matter seems gross, Waheed uses delicate and rhythmic language to de-sensationalize the horror at hand. Like a song, or a dance around truth, Waheed points at the inane human nature of survival, speaking to the hearts of readers and asking them for sympathy. Tell Her Everything is an exercise in moral accountability, and in compassion.
“This is a powerful, profound and important novel — one that has really sunk into my imagination.”Kamila Shamsie, author of Home Fire
“An eloquent and powerful testament to the fragility of our moral codes.”Pankaj Mishra, author of Age of Anger
“A brilliant, unsettling and sometimes horrifying novel.”Alex Preston, author of Winchelsea
Tell Her Everything is published by Melville House
9781685890438 / £20.00 / Out 16th February 2023