Book Review: Take it Back by Kia Abdullah

One victim. Four accused. Who is telling the truth? From author Kia Abdullah, Take It Back is a harrowing and twisting courtroom thriller that keeps you guessing until the last page is turned.

Take It Back is a fast-paced legal thriller centered around a she-said/they-said rape case. Teenager Jodie Wolfe is severely disabled; her facial deformities are the first thing people notice about her. It impacts her ability to speak clearly and be understood. Jodie has accused four Muslim classmates of raping her. She is represented by Zara Kaleel, one of London’s brightest legal minds.

Zara Kaleel’s personal story infuses the plot and will undoubtedly be a factor in forthcoming eponymous mysteries. Like the four defendants, she’s the child of Muslim immigrants.

Zara Kaleel had been a planner. In youth, she had mapped her life with the foresight of a shaman. She had known which path to take at every fork in the road, single-mindedly intent on reaching her goals. She finished law school top of her class and secured a place on Bedford Row, the only brown face at her prestigious chambers. She earned six figures and bought a fast car.

That was then: “When she lost her father six months after their estrangement, something inside her slid apart.” Estrangement is a pale word for the earthshattering choice Zara made—she walked out on her arranged marriage. Her family was, and is, horrified. Unraveling a marriage simply isn’t done and her personal decision “came at a high cost.” Zara no longer wanted the prestige of being a barrister at a marquee firm.

She now works at Artemis House, a sexual assault center, helping victims who need her the most.

She had moved three miles from chambers and found herself in the real East End, a place in which sentiment and emotion were unvarnished by decorum. You couldn’t coast here. There was no shield of bureaucracy, no room for bluff or bluster. Here, there was nothing behind which to hide.

Zara faces life with sardonic humor and sarcasm, bravery, doggedness, and intelligence. She has developed a shield between her emotions and her life. Her weapons are sex (without long term commitment), alcohol, weed, briefly cocaine but it was too tempting, and pharmaceuticals—i.e., Diazepam. Abdullah’s description of cocaine crystallizes its allure: “It wasn’t a bolt of lightning that fused you to your poison but a mellow descent into its seductive grip.” Kudos to Zara for pushing away from that descent into madness. As she says to herself, “East London didn’t need yet another junkie.” The Diazepam is dangerous enough bringing with it on some days peace, and others senseless fog. For the moment, it’s a lifeline.

She glanced up at Jodie’s flat, then took out a brown glass bottle. She shook it once to gauge the number of pills inside. Satisfied with the dull clink of a healthy supply, she lay it on her lap for later. Calmed by the soft weight resting against her legs, she put the car in gear and moved smoothly off.

Zara’s tenuous relationship with her boyfriend fizzles away, leaving her more upset than she anticipated. She receives upsetting news about her client from her investigator Erin: “Here’s the thing: I’m not sure your girl is being a hundred per cent honest.” Sexual assault cases can be cauldrons of unprovable accusations and statements about truth. DNA evidence and signs of assault can only take a lawyer so far, recalling Mark Twain’s famous quote about lies: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” Unfortunately, this is something that Zara had already noted and called Jodie on but for the socially uncomfortable teen, it’s incredibly difficult to admit her longing for boy/girl attention given her profound isolation since birth.

Like her client, Zara feels isolated and she’s mucking up noticeably at work The case is getting to her. Her boss Stuart wants to know what’s up.

“What are you not telling me?” he asked.

Zara shook her head. “I overslept. Really, that’s all.”

“Yes, and the first time it happened, I believed you. We’ve been through this, Zara. You’re one of the best lawyers I’ve ever met and you’re sure as hell the best advisor we’ve had in this place, but this isn’t a shift at Tesco. You’re not stacking shelves. If you don’t turn up to work, the women we look after don’t get the level of care they’re owed.”

Zara bit down her shame. “I’m sorry. I am. It won’t happen again.”

He leaned forward, his voice softening a notch. “That’s what you said last time.”

Zara can’t sluff off his criticism, since “Stuart was one of the few truly selfless people in her life. He wasn’t concerned with feeding his ego or chasing profits; he simply wanted to help their clients.” Zara’s demons are threatening to consume her.

The trial is “harrowing and twisting” and that’s just inside the courtroom. Zara Kaleel’s involvement in the case brings on an avalanche of abuse from the Muslim community. Her family begs her to withdraw from the case. It’s Zara’s belief in Jodie’s story that prevents her from walking away, no matter the personal pain. Events escalate and readers can feel Zara’s visceral pain: “And as issues of sex, race and social justice collide, the most explosive criminal trial of the year builds to a shocking conclusion.”

Readers will look forward to learning more about Artemis House and the cast of characters that surround Kaleel, like investigator Erin Quinto and Detective Constable Mia Scavo. All applause to the launch of this fascinating new series.

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