Book review: Jihadi by Yusuf Toropov

jihadi_a_love_story_coverJihadi is a difficult book that bears persistence. It is also, it says, a love story. Moreover, it is a very timely read. At a time when identity, culture, tribe and truth dominate our discourse, Yusuf Toropov asks us whether we believe in absolutes, or whether our surroundings and experiences determine our own reactions.

You’ll recognise the irony embedded in the last sentence. I wonder what conclusions I would draw from reading the book – had it been written, of course – ten years ago. Or what I would have thought coming to it fresh in 2026.

This is a book which is set somewhere in the middle of what we in the West might call the war on terror. We see the effect of the war on its main protagonists – front line military and intelligence personnel and ordinary citizens caught up in geopolitical struggle. Toropov shows how events are affected by high ideals, ordinary happenstance, misunderstanding, sheer stupidity, and moments of individual and corporate darkness. It’s possible that each of these is as important as the other.

To lead us to that conclusion, the writer plays with our senses. We learn early on that the first person narrator is not a reliable participant, but neither is the commentator whose critique peppers the pages. Indeed, the identity of the main characters is ambiguous. I like the way in which Toropov shows us right from the start the ways in which we should question the words that are in front of us by providing a kind of worked example of a character who is not who we might have assumed them to be.

This is a book which reminds us that even if (and it’s a big if) we can agree what has actually happened, that thing might not be recorded as the ‘truth’ if such a truth is uncomfortable reading for someone who has the wherewithal to come up with something different. There are lots of stages to go through before a powerless person’s reality is acknowledged. Jihadi encourages us to question what is put in front of us and to accept that we may never know the full picture.

That all sounds incredibly dense. Jihadi is dense with ideas; but there is fun to be had within its pages. I particularly like the ways in which Toropov varies the pace. Every now and again he uses language which is quite out of keeping with the characters in front of us: the effect could be jarring but is also amusing (yes, amusing). I didn’t test whether the frequent references to the Beatles’ White Album are actually accurate. Part of me would rather that they were not.

But let’s not pretend this is a lol-filled experience. This novel is not just difficult because we have to concentrate, but because of many harrowing episodes. There is cruelty and inhumanity in abundance. And yes there is the ambiguity and all that but the reader is also reminded – many times – that, while we may not be able to define truth, we know brutality when we see it. Toropov’s characters see it all too often – and we know that this is the part of the book that is probably the most realistic and unambiguous of all.

It’s worth touching on the commentary which breaks up the main narrator’s text. I think that this has been quite controversial, but I’m a fan. Frankly, it is easier to deal with these interruptions as they are presented in Jihadi than those we find in time-shift novels. Besides, particularly in the first part of the novel, it helps us get into the habit of questioning everything. 

A deft debut by Yusuf Toropov. Read it.

Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy.


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