The Centre by Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi
A Horror Book Review by Christina Ladd
Literary horror is having a moment. Not that horror has ever been less than literary—we need look only as far as The Haunting of Hill House’s flawless opening paragraph to know that—but between the glossy hardcover releases of books like Woman, Eating by Claire Khoda and The God of Endings by Jacqueline Holland and the success of high-end horror like Get Out and Midsommar, it’s clear that the English-speaking world is dealing with its proliferating crises in part by delving into genre. And now, problematizing the very nature of speaking English, is The Centre, a debut novel about the limits of what language can do to connect us, and how fluency is a power not without price—especially if the speaker wasn’t the one to pay it.
Anisa, a Pakistani Londoner with dreams of being the next great translator, feel stuck in a rut as she spends most of her time subtitling Bollywood movies. She isn’t exactly looking for romance at a translator’s conference as she tries to find a way out of her professional rut, and certainly not with a White guy—but there’s Adam, speaking three wildly different languages with ease, and Anisa can’t help but be intrigued. As their romance goes on, though, Anisa discovers his connection to a place he refers to only as the Centre, a place that gives him a near-magical facility with language. Including, when their relationship gets serious enough, in acquiring Urdu.
Acquiring is the right verb here, as Adam practically smashes and grabs Urdu like it’s an artifact bound for the British Museum. The Centre really gets started as Anisa makes brutally clear what a betrayal it is for Adam to achieve native fluency with such speed and relative lack of effort: it undermines all the work, the love, and the heritage that collide for Anisa when she speaks Urdu. Her family and what feels like the entire city of Karachi compound this frustration by celebrating Adam’s fluency with wild approbation, delighted that a White man deigned to learn anything about Pakistan, while remaining indifferent at best to Anisa’s painstaking efforts to keep her culture.
And then we discover that Adam took no pains at all. When Anisa learns more about what going to the Centre entails, she finds that it’s essentially a silent retreat on a luxurious rural estate, the amenities plush and the catering five star. The posh exclusivity is another sign of colonialism, but Anisa can’t help but be seduced by its charm. Part of this has to do with Shiba, who manages the entire Centre but who also takes the time to gently assuage Anisa’s every last fear and doubt. Her friendship—or maybe more?—fulfills Anisa in ways she didn’t know she was missing, but Shiba is also hiding the true nature of the Centre from everyone. As Anisa’s established friendships are threatened by her new skills, her new friendship may be a threat to everything she holds dear.
The Centre could have pushed harder on themes of assimilation and appropriation. What does it mean for Anisa to choose German and Russian as her next languages? She doesn’t do much reflecting on these choices, nor on all the languages she chooses by extension not to learn. She shows no interest in German or Russian culture beforehand. Anisa also says that being a great translator means translating great works—so what about her is drawn to languages spoken by majority-White populations? Is this internalized colonialism, or is it a canny way of playing the market against itself, a Pakistani woman being better at conveying those languages than White speakers? The latter gets a little attention, but the focus is still primarily on the Centre.
I think these are compelling questions, but I didn’t see a lot of interrogation of the themes once Anisa had achieved fluency. She was more interested in the mystery of the Centre, which did sort of get into some of those themes, though not until much later. This put the horror elements (the mystery of the Centre) somewhat at odds with the literary elements (what does translation mean), a push-pull that didn’t entirely balance out.
The mystery of the Centre is…probably what you think it is. General fiction readers may be surprised; horror readers probably will not. The revelation also relies on an awkward use of amnesia to conceal the central shocker, which I found a bit silly, especially given that the horror is not as extreme as it easily could have been.
This is not to say that Siddiqi should have been more extreme—the metaphor is doing its work here. Siddiqi is, I think, more interested in what the Centre means than what it is. So: metaphorically, the Centre is an effective meditation on the ways in which language both is and is not a gateway to mutual understanding. Fluency in language does not equate to fluency in culture, and with the Centre’s exclusivity, there is even more inequality generated when only the elite have access. Adam uses his rare fluency not for cross-cultural understanding—he’s quite literally impotent when it comes to Anisa—but to make money off his skill.
Siddiqi has some flair for nuance, and spends a lot of time exploring the intersections of identity both in the privileges they convey as well as the challenges they pose. Adam may be a White man raised in a powerful nation, but his impoverished, single-parent upbringing is also a factor in his motivations and choices. Anisa, almost the exact inverse, is a non-White immigrant woman, but her family is so wealthy that the price tag of the Centre, of flights to another continent, and even weeks and weeks off to hang out with friends, are no problem for her.
Siddiqi is attentive to these shifting intersectionalities, at times to great success, like when she examines the gendered realities of power and the heavy weight of compromise. But at other points it felt like Siddiqi was more worried about saying the wrong thing than telling her story. She went to great lengths to emphasize that Anias’s friend Naima knows she is appropriating other cultures with some of her health treatment techniques, a caution that seemed geared more to reassure readers that Siddiqi herself is With It, that she Gets It, so please don’t create a social media firestorm. This caution is very understandable! But it makes The Centre timid about human messiness when it has every reason to be bold. If horror can’t be messy, what can?
The Centre is exquisitely attuned to the Problematic, but not so attentive to solutions or even on curiosity, making it feel sometimes that the entire endeavor of human understanding is doomed. Relationships and marriages are too thoroughly undermined by cultural expectations of gender, economics, race, sexuality and more to ever fully succeed—hell, Anisa can’t even develop a rapport with the Centre’s driver without it falling apart due to socioeconomic differences.
There is a certain level of intriguing horror in that pessimism, the sheer isolation that comes from every relationship being in some way problematic, the alienation even within one’s own culture, city, and family. At one point it seems as if Shiba will be the remedy to this, and maybe she is. Maybe queer attraction and taboo-breaking is the answer. I would love to agree; it’s Siddiqi herself who doesn’t seem entirely convinced, leaving us with an ambiguous ending that may mean Anisa has found a way to break the system from the inside, or may just mean she has accepted the authority given to her, not just the authority she has taken for herself.
I did enjoy the final line, which at first seemed a little gimmicky, but as I thought more about it, was a nice final little jab at the audience, ensuring that we would know we are complicit in all the systems, that we are participants and not observers. I like that final touch as a hint that Siddiqi will push even further with subsequent novels. With this one, she has a great concept with highly readable prose and an engaging narrator, but unfortunately a bit of hesitancy in pushing concepts and boundaries.
The Centre by Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi
Welcome to The Centre. You’ll never be the same . . .
Anisa Ellahi spends her days writing subtitles for Bollywood films in her London flat, all the while longing to be a translator of ‘great works of literature’. Her boyfriend Adam’s extraordinary aptitude for languages only makes her feel worse, but when Adam learns to speak Urdu practically overnight, Anisa forces him to reveal his secret.
Adam tells Anisa about the Centre, an elite, invite-only programme that guarantees total fluency in any language in just ten days. Sceptical but intrigued, Anisa enrols. Stripped of her belongings and contact with the outside world, she undergoes the Centre’s strange and rigorous processes. But as she enmeshes herself further within the organization, seduced by all that it’s made possible, she soon realizes the disturbing, hidden cost of its services.
By turns dark, funny and surreal, The Centre takes the reader on a journey through Karachi, London and New Delhi, interrogating the sticky politics of language, translation and appropriation with biting specificity, and ultimately asking: what price would you be willing to pay for success?
A remarkable debut from Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi, announcing the arrival of an extraordinary new talent.
Christina Ladd (she/her) is a writer, reviewer, and editor who lives in Minneapolis.
She will eventually die crushed under a pile of books, but until then she survives on a concerning amount of tea and baked goods. You can find more of her fiction and reviews at christinaladd.com.