Take It Back is a riveting courtroom thriller which explores race, disabilities, entitlement and rape. Although not your average psychological suspense novel, the story will haunt you for days after you have finished it and your heart will perhaps hurt with sadness.
Jodie is a disabled young girl in high school with a misshapen face. She is lonely and quiet. Her mother is an alcoholic who can barely tolerate her. She abuses her emotionally by making her feel less than human. They barely make ends meet. When her best friend invites her to attend a party she is hesitant, but her friend offers to dress her with her clothes and put her hair up and they are off. At some point they become separated and a boy, who she has had a crush on for years, offers to take her to her friend. And from that point on there are two sides of the story. Jodie says she was raped. Four boys says nothing happened.
Zara Kaleel is a Muslim social worker, former attorney now working to help assist children in need. When Jodie comes to her a few days after the rape and tells they story of how four Muslim boys took turns raping her, she does not know what to believe. Jodie’s story at times seems inconsistent, but when her shirt with DNA on it from one of the boys comes back that sends the case to trial.
The boys who do not seem very concerned, repeatedly deny any knowledge of what Jodie is accusing them. Why would they rape an ugly girl when they could have anyone they want? All from Muslim families, there neighborhood supports them and condemns the victim. As the case goes to trial it becomes a media circus. Zara is shunned for taking the side of the victim and not supporting her community.
Her own family is close to disowning her for taking the case. Zara, who tried for years to live by the stringent laws and rules of her religion was banished by her father when she decided she could not continue to believe in the religious views of her family.
As the hatred between sides spills into the streets, a picture of Zara kissing a white man surfaces which puts her own life in jeopardy. But she will not give up. Jodie has no one to support her. As the case winds down explosive information against Jodie and the rape surfaces. It will take all of Zara’s strength to both physically and mentally survive as well as hold on to her belief that Jodie is innocent.
The book as a whole gives a radical inside look at racism, mob mentality and social injustice which can sometimes worsen when a person does not fit the norm. Are they not to be believed just because they don’t fit everybody’s perception of what is ordinary?
But the ending will surely haunt you for quite a while.
KIA ABDULLAH is an author and travel writer. She has contributed to The Guardian, BBC, Channel 4 News, and The New York Times. Kia currently travels the world as one half of the travel blog Atlas & Boots, which receives over 200,000 views per month.
Q&A with Kia Abdullah, author of TAKE IT BACK
- In TAKE IT BACK, you deal with a challenging topic–a sixteen-year-old girl accuses four boys from her class in school of rape–how do you tell a story about such a traumatic subject while keeping readers turning the pages?
For me, character is so important because it does two things. Firstly, it forces me to approach a subject sensitively because I grow to care about my characters. I didn’t want Jodie – the 16-year-old girl in Take It Back – to be a loosely-sketched victim on which to hang my plot, so I took the time to interview survivors, counsellors, lawyers and police officers to make sure I was doing her justice.
Secondly, great characters make readers care about what happens and that’s what keeps the pages turning. The four boys who are accused in the novel are fully-fledged characters in their own right and so that setup is really compelling for the reader: “I care about both the victim and the accused here, but who is telling the truth?”
- Where did the inspiration for TAKE IT BACK come from?
I wouldn’t say that Take It Back is an angry novel, but it does come from a place of anger. I don’t like to admit that because anger is such a primitive emotion, but I was angry for nearly my whole twenties. I was raised in a conservative Muslim family in London and struggled with the pressures it placed on me: to be quiet and not raise my head above the parapet.
At the same time, I could see how the mood in certain quarters of the media was turning against Muslims and that made me deeply uncomfortable because we are not the monolithic, malevolent entity we are sometimes made out to be.
Take It Back allowed me to examine this conflict in the context of a thriller. It’s a gripping courtroom drama at heart, but it also asks: how do we judge people based on what they look like or what they believe in? That is really the root of the novel.
- How much of a challenge is it to write about potentially divisive social issues like racial and ethnic biases while keeping the tension high and driving the plot forward?
There is definitely a temptation to get on my soapbox and preach about issues that matter to me. The key is to trust the reader. I don’t need to spell things out or drone on for pages and pages. Sometimes, a simple action speaks volumes and I have to trust the reader to catch its meaning.
For example, in one scene, Mo (one of the accused) is embarrassed of his father who works as a butcher because of the dried crust of blood on the cuticles of his nails. I could have expanded on this for several pages – about how immigrant children can be simultaneously proud and ashamed of their parents, or the plight of the working class – but I trusted the reader to recognise the pathos of that moment. Cutting out extra detail helps to keep tension high and drive the plot forward.
I can’t take all the credit though. There were definitely parts where my brilliant editor stepped in to say, “Um, this might be a bit much, so pare it back a little”. I owe her a huge amount.
- Zara, the heroine in TAKE IT BACK, is smart, strong and fearless. And she faces a lot of pressure from her family over her choices that break with tradition. How did you go about writing her?
Zara was tricky because when you’re writing a woman of colour – especially one from a South-Asian background – you feel the burden of representation because there aren’t many characters like this in fiction. On one hand, I wanted to be true to who and what she was, but on the other I didn’t want to play into stereotypes.
I’ll give you an example. Zara’s backstory involves an arranged marriage. On one hand, that plays into stereotypes of the South-Asian woman, but on the other, nearly every British-Bangladeshi woman from London that I personally know – certainly of Zara’s generation – had an arranged marriage (as did I by the way). Do I ignore this in favour of a false narrative?
Ultimately, I opted for what I felt was true to Zara’s character. She isn’t purely one thing (strong, fearless, invincible) or the other (quiet, docile, submissive); she’s a mixture of many things as are we all.
- Tell us about your other passion–travel writing. How did you get started with that? And does it influence your fiction?
I’d always wanted to travel around the world so, after a year of intense saving, my boyfriend and I quit our jobs in 2014 to spend a year hopping across the South Pacific and South America. Along the way, we set up our own travel blog, Atlas & Boots, mostly as a way to keep our skills sharp. It quickly gained traction and continued to grow. (Before Covid hit, it was getting 300,000 readers a month!)
The travel writing is very different from fiction, although I’m sure that the first informs the second. For example, I might be out on a swim and notice how seaweed looks like a woman’s hair floating in the bath and use that description in fiction. I could have written my novels if I’d just stayed at home, but the writing would likely be flatter.
- What is your writing process typically like? Do you set a goal of a certain number of pages per day? Start with an outline or see where the story leads you?
I am a planner for sure. I outline my novels before I write a single word. The idea of jumping in headfirst without knowing that I have a strong ending (or beginning and middle for that matter!) is just too scary. I do leave some room for the story to breathe so if it takes me in a different direction, I’m open to that.
In terms of the writing itself, I’m fairly regimented. I write 1,500 words a day and won’t stop until that’s done. Sometimes, this means that I end up with terrible words, but I leave that for the editing!
- Do you have a routine or process that helps to get into a flow and stay productive when you’re writing?
I use Freedom to block out social media, which is absolutely intrinsic to my routine. Without it, Twitter would swallow hours of productivity.
Other than that, I try to get out for a short walk every day. Sometimes, when I’m warm and toasty in my study and it’s gloomy outside (as it often is in England), it’s hard to motivate myself to venture out, but I always feel better for it. Whenever friends tell me that they’re feeling a bit sad or sluggish, I always encourage them to get out and go somewhere green if possible.
- TAKE IT BACK was first published in the UK in 2019–was the reaction to the book what you’d hoped for? Any memorable reader feedback?
I’ve been blown away by the feedback. I’ve been writing professionally for 14 years and would occasionally receive a message of appreciation for a column or a feature. With Take It Back, I got hundreds of tweets, emails and messages from readers who adored the book.
It’s especially heartening when South-Asian women get in touch to say that they really see themselves in Zara. This makes me pleased that I stuck to the truest version of her.
Another piece of feedback that sticks in my mind is from a reader who compared my work to Ibsen. That was rather nice to hear!
- What’s coming up next that you’re excited about?
I’m gearing up for the UK paperback release of Truth Be Told in March 2021. It’s the follow-up to Take It Back and we will see Zara return to fight a new case.
Aside from that, I’m looking forward to the world getting back to normal – or some version of it. I really miss travelling. In December 2019, I was on a road trip through Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. I’d love to return and explore more of the area and beyond.
Early praise for Take It Back:
“Riveting, thought-provoking legal thriller… Abdullah is definitely a writer to watch.” – Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Abdullah has done an exemplary job of character development and is especially good at ratcheting up suspense as the trial proceeds.” – Booklist, starred review
“A thought-provoking and sparklingly intelligent novel, with the welcome bonus of an unguessable ending.” —The Telegraph
Take It Back Book Description
From author Kia Abdullah, Take It Back is a harrowing and twisting courtroom thriller that keeps you guessing until the last page is turned.
Who is telling the truth?
Zara Kaleel, one of London’s brightest legal minds, shattered the expectations placed on her by her family and forged a brilliant legal career. But her decisions came at a high cost, and now, battling her own demons, she has exchanged her high profile career for a job at a sexual assault center, helping victims who need her the most. Victims like Jodie Wolfe.
When Jodie, a sixteen-year-old girl with facial deformities, accuses four boys in her class of an unthinkable crime, the community is torn apart. After all, these four teenage defendants are from hard-working immigrant families and they all have proven alibis. Even Jodie’s best friend doesn’t believe her.But Zara does—and she is determined to fight for Jodie—to find the truth in the face of public outcry. And as issues of sex, race and social justice collide, the most explosive criminal trial of the year builds to a shocking conclusion.
Thank you #NetGalley #St.Martin’sPublishingGroup #TakeItBack #KiaAbdulla for the advanced copy. You can buy the book now with the following links: