“Book Review: Never Among Equals”
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
This WWI novel strikes mournful notes as an enterprising Bengali man fights for Britain
Fazle Chowdhury’s novel Never Among Equals follows the major life choices of a young man in London around the time of the First World War. It’s the saga of his twenties and thirties as he seeks to get a footing in the world. Author Fazle Chowdhury’s imagination takes us into an urban landscape that teases the possibilities of happiness and heartbreak while, above all, promising a fresh start. One may interpret it as a story of hope.
The story begins in 1913 as Firoze Hazari, who loves playing cricket, has just graduated Oxford with a degree in economics. His family wants him to return to Dhaka—in British-ruled Bengal, today Bangladesh—to join the family business and enter an arranged marriage. Firoze, however, is independent. He rents a flat in London and gets a job with an investment firm.
Eventually, he comes to believe that any portfolio depending on the Weimar Republic—especially the firm’s investments in imports and exports from British colonies like Bombay and Karachi—is in jeopardy. Firoze cautions the owner of the firm, but the owner doesn’t agree.
Firoze decides to leave the investment firm for a higher calling.
In 1914, he is commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant, serving as special assistant to a colonel of land warfare, defending Britain. After a couple years go by, his superiors unfairly accuse him of withholding information about spy networks. He weathers that storm and accepts a dangerous mission to infiltrate the Weimar lines.
The author describes early 20th-century London with an immediacy that turns historical settings into lively scenes. The story unrolls with a feeling of directness; coming as it does from the fictional Firoze’s perspective, it is simply the setting of his life.
Rich attention is given to the complex political situation: we’re given a view on the interconnected fate of nations as seen from the perspective of a foreigner in Britain. Firoze navigates these complexities as a person of upstanding character. He works hard and mostly does what is expected of him (except from his parents’ perspective).
One thing I noticed, however, is that he doesn’t have much of a primary goal throughout his story. He pursues separate goals at different times—academics, income, meaningful service, freedom, health, marriage, children, answers—but his desire for one overarching goal isn’t to be found here. His satisfaction doesn’t seem to hang on any one particular thing, so he encounters no particular barriers nor does he achieve unusual overarching success. What we read here is a series of life events that stretch from 1913 until the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929 without a large conflict or character arc.
The novel instead is more of a morality play: Firoze always tries to do the right thing, is beset by problems outside of his control, and his social capital usually comes through for him. It’s an intelligent work that merges complexity with historical intrigue, but there are a few moments of stagnancy.
Never Among Equals ebbs and flows in its depictions of life’s highs and lows. It reveals Firoze’s moments of intensity as well as more ordinary periods of his life—tinged with the comic and the tragic. It’s an excellent choice for readers who like to be immersed in the singular perspective of a character whose future remains uncertain.
Category: Historical fiction
Paperback: 288 pages
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