One day, Osman Yousefzada’s parents removed him from school for six months and took him back to where they were born, on the banks of the Indus. His father had often returned, but his mother had not, and while Osman gazes at jewellery-laden women, at villages that are a “puzzle of alleyways in permanent shadow”, at rounds of Kalashnikov bullets fired into the air at weddings in these border territories between Pakistan and Afghanistan, she caught up on her dead. Taken to England as a young girl, with only a few hours’ warning, she had not been able to say goodbye. Osman, who in England often wondered at how his vivid mother was intermittently flooded with sadness, watches her at her family’s graves. “My heart was inside hers: finally, I understood the crying.”
One of the many arresting things about this arresting memoir is the way in which Yousefzada manages information: like Leo in the LP Hartley novel that lends his book its title, Yousefzada is, for most of it, a child. He sees what a perceptive child sees, which is not the same as understanding it (though of course the reader understands, and that generates tension). And what he sees is Balsall Heath, Birmingham, in the 1980s, when housing was cheap enough for recent immigrants – West Indians, Rastafarians, Ugandans, Bangladeshis, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Pakistanis, Irish. Ali Campbell from UB40 lives at the end of the street; sex workers tout for custom in front of mosques. Yousefzada’s own orthodox Pathan community is “the most covered and the least integrated in south Birmingham”, the men and women within this separation strictly separated again. But childhood gives him (and us) an all-areas pass. He is a skilled guide, building a rich world of hiding places, of smells, feet at prayer – and clothes.
Yousefzada’s mother was a gifted seamstress; it was, writes her son, “like watching a magician”. He is now a designer who has dressed A-listers from Beyoncé to Lady Gaga, and an artist who has exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery and the V&A, but this is where it began – watching his mother cut patterns freehand, embroidering cuffs and necklines, weighing up fabrics and colours. Generations of children have dressed Barbies for role-play; only a handful will have used offcuts of green devoré.
As he grew older, he began to see what this gift meant to his mother: self-expression, pride in personal achievement, and community. She could not go out, but all sorts of women came to her. Often they stayed, and talked. Men were drab, distant, frightening, but to Osman, increasingly his mother’s confidante, the world of women was a “full-blown epic, of tragedy, pathos, colour, jewellery and clothes”. He began to be sent on errands. He picked fabrics, chose shoes, gained a reputation for discerning taste. And brought back news of the outside world, which, apart from the corner shop, F Allen’s, was for him largely non-white. Not even at school did this change: the brown and Black kids were streamed into lower sets regardless of ability (and Yousefzada’s was high).
But when the other world broke through, it did so with a vengeance: Thatcher’s complaints about being “swamped” by immigration, marauding skinheads, graffiti reading “Pakis go home”. This begins to complicate Yousefzada’s understanding of the masculinity he fears – his father’s violence and inaccessibility, the religiosity of the bearded believers, or “Bushmen” as he called them. These were men brought over to labour, many of whom worked decades without a holiday. Now factories were closing, serving them “with redundancy papers they couldn’t read”, and they retreated into worship and “the consolation of our culture, our dignity”. There is a moving moment when an English-born son asks why they have to fly a recently deceased man to Pakistan when all his family are in Britain. “He needs to be buried … in the earth of his birth,” comes the reply. “In the land where he was respected, not where he was spat upon.”
Yousefzada, who mourns his ejection, at 12, from the women’s quarters, “where the joy and colour came from”, is honest about how long it took him, as a male, to notice the effect this religiosity had on his sisters, who were taken out of school at 10 or 11 and confined to the house. He remembers a woman unable to comfort a son dying in the street because she was not allowed to cross her own threshold; the terrible fates of those accused of being barren, or “loose”. He tells these tragedies plainly, letting them speak for themselves in this narrative full of lovely lines, often further lifted by a light irony – a man “visibly inflating with sagacity”, for instance, or another, a religious purist partial to attar of saffron, musk and jasmine, who “always appeared to be there even when he wasn’t”. When the Bushmen run the pimps and prostitutes out of their neighbourhood, Yousefzada registers that he misses one girl in particular, who always said hello. “However, God’s work was done, and the house prices began to rise.”
“I have cleansed some of my feelings in this ritual writing,” Yousefzada notes in his acknowledgments, and the effect when writing about himself, about his escape to Soas University of London, then Central Saint Martins and Cambridge, can be an elusiveness, a curiously distant affect, reported rather than felt. What really lingers are the vividnesses of his childhood world, the struggles and griefs of his parents, and especially of his mother, to whose life he bears loving witness.
• The Go-Between by Osman Yousefzada is published (Canongate Books Ltd, £14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer order a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.