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Wednesday 26 June 2024

Northern Boy by Iqbal Hussain

 The cover of Northern Boy by Iqbal Hussain, under the spotlight at Is This Mutton

Dear friends. Today's book spotlight is a story that will make you laugh and cry. It's a colourful, vivid and evocative account of a Blackburn boy's battle to become a performance artist and remain true to himself. 

Northern Boy is the debut novel from award winning Iqbal Hussain. 

Publisher's Description 

Is This Mutton reviews the debut novel by acclaimed writer Iqbal Hussain, Northern Boy

It's 1981 in the suburbs of Blackburn and, as Rafi’s mother reminds him daily, the family moved here from Pakistan to give him the best opportunities. But Rafi longs to follow his own path. 

Flamboyant, dramatic and musically gifted, he wants to be a Bollywood star. 

Twenty years later, Rafi is flying home from Australia for his best friend’s wedding. He has everything he ever wanted: starring roles in musical theatre, the perfect boyfriend and freedom from expectation. But returning to Blackburn is the ultimate test: can he show his true self to his community?

Navigating family and identity from boyhood to adulthood, as well as the changing eras of ABBA, skinheads and urbanisation, Rafi must follow his heart to achieve his dreams.

My Thoughts 

If you’re thinking Billy Elliott or Slumdog Millionaire you’re on the right track except that Northern Boy has darker moments of racism, prejudice and homophobia.  

It’s divided into sections. Part one sees present-day Rafi setting off from his home in Australia to go to his childhood friend’s wedding in Blackburn.  He’s apprehensive.  We learn he hadn’t been home for several years. 

The timeline slips back to the early 80s. Rafi is an exuberant child who loves singing,  dancing and playing his toy piano. His mother sings along as she whips up delicious food for her family. 

There’s lots of humour which made me laugh out loud. On a car trip, Rafi’s dad, who works in a mill, tells him exasperatedly “Your mother complains all the time. She says – move, you bloody donkey!”  Thinks Rafi: ‘I thought that unreasonable of Mother, before realising Father was shouting at a cyclist.’ 

As secondary school time approaches,  Rafi is terrified of going to the school his brother attends. His fears are justified when he goes there for a day visit and is attacked in the toilets.  

Rafi and his friend Shazia are mad about Abba and she dresses him up like Agnetha, so convincingly he isn’t recognised by anyone in the corner shop. But his mother is furious and says he must only be a drama queen indoors. She forbids him from taking part in a school performance with Abba, for lunchtime TV.  

Fortunately one of Rafi’s teachers, Mr H, sees the potential Rafi has and starts preparing him to apply for a place at a Conservatoire.  This is also done in secrecy because his parents are vehemently opposed to the idea. They would rather he became a doctor. 

Fast forward a few years and Rafi is a successful stage performer. He Skypes occasionally with his family but hasn’t met his nieces or nephew. 

The trip back to Blackburn is traumatic for many reasons. Rafi becomes estranged from his mother. Will they ever reconcile? 

I loved the powerful character of Mother.  Always dressed colourfully, with a painted on beauty spot and dramatic eye makeup, she came to life to me as she sang and danced round the house, cooking up a storm.  In reality she was never very happy with her husband and was always homesick for Pakistan.  She lavished affection on little Rafi. 

Rafi was also a complex character. The delightful child became a brooding and sensitive man who avoided conflict, even as far as moving to the other side of the world.  

A book that delivers laughs and tears. Highly recommended. 

About the Author 

Iqbal Hussain is a writer from Blackburn, Lancashire and he lives in London. His work appears in various anthologies and on websites including The Willowherb Review, The Hopper and caughtbytheriver. 

He is a recipient of the inaugural London Writers’ Awards 2018 and he won Gold in the Creative Future Writers’ Awards 2019. In 2022, he won first prize in Writing Magazine’s Grand Flash competition and was joint runner-up in the Evening Standard Short Story Competition. In 2023,his story ‘I’ll Never Be Young Again’ won first prize in the Fowey Festival of Arts and Literature short story competition. He was also Highly Commended in the Emerging Writer Award from The Bridge Award. 

Northern Boy is his first novel.

Thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours, the author and the publisher, for the paperback advance copy of Northern Boy in return for an honest review. 


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