The Tower is Shereen Malherbe’s newest contemporary novel. It takes place in the UK and is loosely based on the Grenfell Tower fire, in which 72 people died when the social housing complex was destroyed. This quiet and contemplative novel is told from the alternating points of view of two women who move into the building from very different lives.
Leah is English. Her husband died last year, and she has been living with her parents in their posh Kensington house while still in the fog of her grief. She can’t get along with them any longer, however, and she moves herself and her son, Elijah, to the tower, which is the only place they can afford.
Reem, who is pregnant, is a recently arrived Syrian refugee who has been placed in the tower. She suffered some kind of trauma during her journey and has lost most of her memory about how she arrived in the UK. She remembers being on a boat but only has a vague memory of the shoreline. Her next clear memory is of waking up in the hospital. She was traveling with her brother, but they were separated, and her priority is to find him. Over the course of the novel, the mystery of what happened to her and her brother is unraveled.
Leah and Reem become friends at first through Elijah, who is friendly with Reem, and then when Leah helps Reem register her brother as a missing person. As the two women get jobs and try to settle into their new lives, their friendship grows.
Even more than being a story about their friendship, this is the story of the building. From the opening scene, we understand that this isn’t a typical building. As Leah stands on the curb watching the taxi disappear, two men arrive to carry her sofa upstairs. She initially thinks they’re stealing it, and then, when she realizes the truth, apologizes profusely. But the residents of the tower have built a real community: helping each other with the furniture is the least of it. They also grow a garden, hold weekly meetings to discuss important issues, and host a community iftar every Ramadan. They are an odd assortment of people thrown into a building together, but they have good intentions and have built relationships around their commonalities, and that aspect of the story was really beautiful.
The Tower addresses themes of poverty, racism, immigration, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. The short chapters told from alternating points of view make it highly readable; I devoured it in a single day. I also loved Reem’s character. She practices both the spirit and the letter of Islam on the page, which is undeniably refreshing. Despite a few plot holes and bits of background that I wished were explained, this original and moving novel is well worth a read.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Thank you to Beacon Books for sending me a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.