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Book Review: Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed

Book Review: Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed

From the cobblestone streets of modern-day Paris to the gilded cage of a harem in the Ottoman Empire some 200 years earlier, Samira Ahmed’s latest novel Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know is a refreshing and poignant story of two young women fighting to write their own stories in a world that’s been dominated by men, and the unexpected ways in which those women’s lives intertwine across the centuries.

Still reeling from the harsh criticism of the head judge for the Young Scholar Prize at her dream school, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 17-year-old Khayyam is spending the month of August in Paris with her professor parents. While brooding and trying to figure out how to get her life back on track, Khayyam meets Alexandre – the charming and handsome 19-year-old descendant of Alexandre Dumas, one of France’s most popular writers.

Armed with a hunch and a new, unexpected partner-in-crime, Khayyam sets out to reclaim her academic self-worth by finding the missing Delacroix painting that had been given to Dumas and proving her essays theory once and for all. But as Khayyam begins to uncover the connections between some of the most lauded men of the 19th century – Dumas, Delacroix and Lord Byron – and the enigmatic, unnamed Muslim woman who inspired their poetry and paintings, her focus begins to shift and Khayyam soon becomes determined to uncover the real version of Leila’s story, the story of a woman trying to carve her own path in life despite all the obstacles put in her way.

“I thought before that maybe Dumas was reaching through time to help me, but it’s not him. It’s this forgotten woman who’s holding her hand out, and I’m not going to let her stay lost.”

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know is a story about many things, and 17-year-old budding art historian Khayyam Maquet spending her summer in Paris sleuthing over a mystery hidden away in literature, poetry and art is just the beginning. Unfortunately, however, it’s a launch point that gets the story off to a slow and repetitive start, labouring the speculation of a mystery woman and allusions to her for a beat too long, making this a novel that’s a little difficult to get into – at least at first. Thankfully, the momentum builds quickly and the seeds of the mystery develop into a full-blown treasure hunt across Paris that’s driven by excitement, intrigue and a dusting of romance too so that Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know becomes a book that soon demands your full attention.

In large part, this is thanks to the meticulous crafting of the mystery itself. Yes, in some ways, MB&DTK does indulge in the Scooby-Doo way of thinking, with secret doors and hidden chambers marked by poetic descriptions in long-lost letters – but it’s something that Ahmed has her narrator knowingly acknowledge too, and Khayyam is the first to point out the absurdity of it all in her typically self-deprecating way. But the basis of Leila’s story is drawn from Byron’s poetry, particularly ‘The Giaour’ and the later Delacroix painting it inspired, and it’s these real-world touches that deliver some much-needed grounding elements to the story, not to mention a real-world line of interest for readers to invest in too.

But as much fun as the somewhat implausible adventures of two art-loving, super-sleuthing teens are, this novel benefits all the more from a hearty dose of realism that is particularly demonstrated through Khayyam herself. It’s completely right that in a story so focused on uncovering women’s voices and women telling their own stories, that Khayyam’s own voice shines through so completely and irrevocably on every page as she grapples with her past mistakes, her future ambitions and the mark she wants to leave on the world. Even as she juggles with all of the aspects of her identity – American, French, Indian, Muslim – Khayyam’s determination to tell Leila’s story helps her to come to terms with her own feelings, and find her own voice in the process.

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know is a book that’s steeped in history and poetry, but it invites readers to question who it is that’s doing the telling – and what stories may have been forgotten along the way. From summer flings and romances to familial burdens and the pressures of cultural expectations, there’s a lot going on here, but it’s told with such lyrical ease that it never gets to be too heavy. Between the realistic characters, the dual storylines and the easy narrative style, this novel is ultimately a light yet engaging read that’s delightfully meta-textual and packed with lots of brilliant hints and allusions to uncover and enjoy.


Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know is published by Atom on 27 August 2020

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