The Lebs by Michael Mohammed Ahmad
The new novel from Michael Mohammed Ahmad is a bold and wired read; tension is coiled tightly within every paragraph. The way the prose comes at you, you’d swear it was cornering you.
Divided into three sections, we follow Bani Adam, a teenage Muslim, from his teens through to his first year out of high school. The story is set predominantly within the confines of Punchbowl Boys High School in Western Sydney. Ahmad has crafted a claustrophobic, unrelenting and highly authentic depiction of high school – a place filled with the constant threat of violence, actual violence, and, always, the boys’ almost single-minded pursuit of the opposite sex, even when (or especially when) it clashes with their faith.
Bani considers himself a cut above his classmates and goes to great lengths to separate himself from his peers, not only with his taste in literature, but also through his infatuation with his English teacher, his unwillingness to do drugs, and his constant dressing in flares. Though how committed he is to this image is unclear. How different is he, really?
While the narrative is not propelled by plot, Ahmad strategically withholds and relays information to clever effect, forcing us to constantly re-assess what we think we know. His distinctive use of language, especially within a country as racist as Australia, is ultimately one of the most interesting parts of the novel. This is especially true of the final section where Bani, out of high school, takes up both boxing and experimental theatre, and questions how free he really is.
In Ahmad’s previous book, the excellent novel-in-stories The Tribe, it felt like the swell of violence and racism was always simmering somewhere underneath. Here, Ahmad puts it all on full display, and then leaves it for us to deal with. The Lebs is a new and exciting contribution to Australian literature.