Judging by the coy, textbook-like title you might think that The Registrar's Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages is a lighthearted entry in Alexander McCall Smith's Ladies Detective Agency series. Not at all. Turns out this novel is nothing like Smith's quirky exotic-ness. This new book by Sophie Hardach is a serious look at contemporary issues facing immigrants.
None of the main characters in The Registrar's Manual is where they began life. They are all immigrants and refugees including our first narrator. She is a thirty something German woman working in a registrar’s office in France. Her job is to assess marriage applications to determine if a prospective bride is being coerced into marriage. The application of a Kurdish couple arouses her suspicions. Her investigation leads to charges of ignorance of culture and traditions on her part. The ensuing difficulties force her to examine her revolutionary youth and involvement with a refugee named Selim fifteen years ago.
We learn from flashbacks that Selim was running from Saddam Hussein's horrific treatment of the Kurds when he swam to Italy. After some false starts and near misses the thirteen year old finds himself in Germany with three passports. There in relative safety, compared to what he's already been through, Selim tries to establish a life for himself while still maintaining his religion and culture. His attempts to be accepted and the uncertainty of his residency status are hard enough burdens to deal with but when the September 11th terrorist attacks occur Selim's problems multiply a hundredfold.
The nameless junior clerk in the registrar’s office will cross paths with Selim once again during her examination of the young Kurdish couple. Their past connection, her former radical ways and the guidebook she gets in the mail, The Registrar’s Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages unsettle her and Selim's life in startling ways.
Hardach plays with language throughout her novel and there are a lot of languages to play with in a book where the characters travel through such a large chunk of Europe. What you say, what you meant to say, what they heard and what will get you into trouble becomes even trickier when native tongues, second languages and I have no idea what you mean all collide. Add to that the uncertainty Hardach builds into Selim's history and the convolutions of bureaucracy.
The Registrars Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages is a smart and challenging look at many topical issues: law, belonging, prejudice, suspicion and marriage encased in imaginative storytelling. It's all amazingly interesting. Hardach has done all that and left her own opinions at the door. There is no preaching. She does not try to pound your brain into submission while she force feeds you her beliefs. Bravo. Sophie Hardach is absolutely an author to watch.
P.S. Right now The Registrar's Manuel for Detecting Forced Marriages is available in the U.K. but not here in the U.S.A. I have not seen any information about it being published here but if I had any say at a publishing house it would be.