Book Review: The Centre by Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi

In this speculative debut, a London-based Pakistani translator furthers her stalled career by attending a mysterious language school that boasts near-instant fluency--but at a secret, sinister cost. Read on for Doreen Sheridan's review!

This might be one of the most sophisticatedly structured books I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year! In all honesty, I didn’t think it would be, given the novel’s oddly unpolished first few pages. The voice of our narrator Anisa Ellahi comes across as both awkward and scattered, but as she relaxes into her story and the narrative unfolds, a meticulously built manuscript comes into focus, telling a tale at once audaciously unlikely and sickeningly plausible.

It helps that Anisa’s story is very much rooted in modern life, especially for first-generation Asian immigrants. The book begins, more or less, with Anisa’s dissatisfaction with her life in London. She came to the United Kingdom from Karachi to study, and decided to stay on after graduating. Over a decade later, she provides English subtitles for Bollywood films and chafes at her inability to break into the literary translation market.

She’s attending yet another translation studies conference when she meets Adam, a white Londoner whose native fluency in multiple languages astonishes her. They begin to date, despite her misgivings:

His reaction when I said I was from Pakistan spoke volumes–this vigorous “I’m so totally cool with that” kind of nod. And then he asked me whether I’d ever been pressured to wear a headscarf. When I responded by calling his question bizarre, he turned red and sputtered endless apologies. I thought of asking him in return whether he’d ever been pressured to divide and conquer, then realized that might imply that I thought the hijab was negative, and I got so caught up in this response loop in my own head that I just let it go.

One thing she can’t let go of, however, is his prodigious mastery of languages. He finally confides in her that his abilities come from sessions at a highly secretive language institute called The Centre. For twenty thousand pounds, they guarantee native speaker fluency in one language per single ten-day session.

Anisa is highly skeptical of this claim but also intrigued. While she’s fluent in Urdu, French and English, she knows that the most lucrative market for literary translators is in German. Armed with a recommendation from Adam, she begins the process of applying to The Centre in hopes of learning enough to further her career.

The Centre ends up being both deeply weird and strangely relaxing. The interview process is invasive, and the learning experience itself oddly tedious. But Anisa finds a kindred spirit in The Centre’s director, Shiba, who has taken over the day-to-day management of the retreat from its founders. As Shiba and Anisa grow closer, the secret at the heart of The Centre’s success slowly unfolds.

Is there a speculative element to the mystery that propels this novel? Absolutely. But more importantly, the activities of The Centre are a compelling and slippery metaphor, molded by everyone who knows its secret into philosophical arguments regarding human life, survival and power. As Anisa says to Shiba:

“But what you’re describing isn’t transformation, it’s…extension. You’ll just end up reproducing whatever [the Founders] come up with.”


“You know that’s not how it works. There’s choice involved. It would be like…like smuggling dynamite into the epicenter of power. We could remake the world in our own image,” she said. Her eyes lit up as she spoke.


“It’s too much,” I said. “To participate unknowingly was one thing, but to do it voluntarily? I’m not sure I’m cut out for that.”


“But you’re doing it anyway, Anisa. We all are. It’s how the cycle of life works, right? This is just a way to opt in consciously. To have more control. Listen, life is short. We have, what, another…fifty, sixty years left? We need to stuff more into our little lives. I know you think so too.”

Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi broaches a breathtaking range of important social topics in her debut novel, grappling with colonialism, race, and sexuality in this dazzlingly constructed novel. The tension and pacing are impeccable, with suspense and heartbreak a constant across the book’s final pages. As in real life, there are no easy answers, but as in real life, there is humor and lightness and hope to help alleviate the darkness. 

This is one of those novels that will have you wanting to reread it immediately after you reach the end, to find those clues you might have missed the first time around, as well as to give you indications as to what Anisa might choose next. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers your fiction cut and dried, an escapist alternative to the vexing complexities of the everyday, then this may not be the book for you. I, however, absolutely loved it.

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