Take It Back by Kia Abdullah is a legal thriller that tells the story of a white disabled teenager who accuses four Muslim boys of raping her. Who is telling the truth?
All Zara Kaleel wants to do is help the victims that need her the most. It’s why the 30-year-old gave up her flourishing career as a barrister to defend victims of sexual assault.
When 16-year-old Jodie Wolfe tells Zara she was raped by four classmates in an abandoned warehouse, nobody could have anticipated how high-profile and polarising Jodie’s case would become. Zara, who is also Muslim, stands by her, much to her family’s dismay and the outrage of her local community.
The believability and complexity of the characters in this novel are exceptional. The third-person perspective works well because readers see how things play out for Zara, Jodie and the four boys as the story progresses. There is much to appreciate and unpack about Zara, who is fascinating. She holds a strong disdain for patriarchy, and how it is normalised and encouraged within society. She grapples with personal demons and family expectations throughout the book, particularly as Jodie’s case develops. I loved reading about Zara’s family. The scenes where Zara is with her mother and siblings were insightful and add layers and texture to an already complex story.
Zara’s determination to do what she feels is right is endearing. Her duty to her victims couldn’t be more important than in Jodie’s case, which stirs more racial tensions and chaos than they ever could have anticipated. If her fellow Muslims want to brand her a traitor for being on Jodie’s side, so be it.
Her role in the case, her part in casting the boys as villains, made her ache with guilt. And yet she knew she would choose it again. It was her duty to protect the victim.
It’s almost too easy to pity 16-year-old Jodie. Her severe facial deformities are caused by a condition called neurofibromatosis. The two people closest to her, her neglectful, alcoholic mother and conceited best friend, don’t believe for one second that Jodie was raped. Jodie seems smart, respectful and mature, but “ugly” is the dreaded term that is used to describe her the most. Jodie’s case shatters the age-old and all too prevalent myth that only attractive, beautiful women can be victims of rape. Her disability – her “mangled face” – not only renders her undesirable by society’s standards but it also makes her more vulnerable to abuse. Unsurprisingly, some people in the book, including those who ought to know better, struggle to comprehend why anyone would want to rape Jodie or be sexually aroused by her appearance.
The humanity of the characters is never up for debate. I empathised with and felt sympathy for the four accused boys, Amir Rabbani, Mohammed Ahmed, Hassan Tanweer and Farid Khan. For the most part, they come across as kind, studious and compassionate individuals, and I became fonder of some of them as the novel progressed. It’s interesting to observe the dynamics of their friendship group throughout the book. Abdullah does a brilliant job of showing how the accusations and trial impact their lives, their families and even fragments their relationships to one another. They are perceived to be good Muslims who come from hardworking immigrant families. This further fuels the disbelief surrounding Jodie’s accusations and intensifies the increasingly vicious backlash directed at Zara for her involvement in Jodie’s case.
Inconsistencies exist in Jodie’s account and the boys’ accounts of what happened on the night of her reported rape. Take It Back pulls you in many directions and constantly makes you question yourself and the characters. Who can be trusted when the truth and lies become blurred? Like Zara, I decided I would be loyal to Jodie from the beginning. When the holes in her testimony began to emerge, it was difficult to accept that she might be lying. The more I doubted Jodie, the more it felt like I was betraying her. I couldn’t help feeling disappointed with myself and mildly guilty. I went from rooting for her to almost dismissing her as a hurt teenager who must have made it all up.
“Look at us, Mo. Even if we could prove that we didn’t touch Jodie, we’d still be four darkies in the dock. You think we’d get a fair chance?” – Farid Khan
The second half of the book mostly takes place in court. This is where Abdullah’s intelligent and vivid writing shines the brightest. She lays bare the intimidating and brutal cross-examination that sexual assault victims are subjected to. With explosive tensions, shocking revelations and interactions laced with misogyny, ableism and victim-blaming rhetoric, the courtroom scenes riled me up and kept me frantically turning the page. They prove the disturbing accuracy of Zara’s statement in the book that “few victims emerged from this gauntlet unscathed.”
Take It Back is a fast-paced, riveting and thought-provoking tale for our times. Abdullah handles a sensitive subject matter with the care it deserves while also exploring race, gender, class, disability, privilege and peer pressure. She is a phenomenal storyteller who knows how to keep readers on their toes and desperately coming back for more. With sharp prose, excellently crafted characters and brimming with legal insight, Take It Back entices readers until the very end. There were many twists that I didn’t see coming.
The book’s ending is heartbreaking, even if slightly frustrating in its openness. Abdullah’s stunning courtroom drama reminds us that actions can have far-reaching and devastating consequences. More importantly, Take It Back highlights the damage that is caused when we don’t believe women.
My rating: 9.5 /10