Review: The Shot

Sarah Sultoon – The Shot (Blog Tour)

Published by Orenda Books, paperback £8.99, also available in ebook. I received a proof copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes. Many thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour. You can buy books direct from Orenda’s website at: https://orendabooks.co.uk/

First, the official blurb: Samira is an up-and-coming TV journalist, working the nightshift at a major news channel and yearning for greater things. So when she’s offered a trip to the Middle East, with Kris, the station’s brilliant but impetuous star photographer, she leaps at the chance. In the field together, Sami and Kris feel invincible, shining a light into the darkest of corners … except the newsroom, and the rest of the world, doesn’t seem to care as much as they do. Until Kris takes the photograph. With a single image of young Sudanese mother, injured in a raid on her camp, Sami and the genocide in Darfur are catapulted into the limelight. But everything is not as it seems, and the shots taken by Kris reveal something deeper and much darker … something that puts not only their careers but their lives in mortal danger.

Sarah Sultoon’s debut novel, The Source – longlisted last week for the CWA New Blood Dagger – was a superb piece of work melding “write what you know” (in Sultoon’s case, journalism) with a plot part-inspired by real events (the grooming and abuse of vulnerable girls), and adding a clever structure and a large dose of empathy. (You can find my full review of it elsewhere on the blog.)

The Shot takes broadcast journalism abroad and into danger, and while it’s set in different parts of the world, you can’t help but think of the journalists currently covering the invasion of Ukraine and the risks they are taking – according to independent international organisation Reporters Without Borders, five were killed in the first month after Russia crossed the border. The media landscape and technology is very different in 2022 to when this novel is set, but however much training and support you have, it’s still a dangerous business.

The prologue of The Shot is an assault on the senses: abrasive desert sand, stifling heat, blinding light, exhaustion physical and emotional – and fear. It’s not an easy read, and neither is the novel that follows, but stick with it and you will be rewarded.

The opening chapter spools back a year to November 2003, a few months into the Second Gulf War and a couple of years into the Afghanistan War. A newsroom in London is hit by breaking news of the worst kind: members of its team in Iraq have been injured in an assault, adding further urgency to the frantic search for information. Samira – Sami – is relatively new to the organisation and desperate to escape her overnight shifts on the graphics desk. In the chaos she is told to pick up a phone and keep the line to the Iraqi team’s base open. This is her first toe in the water.

Kris, veteran photographer and known risk-taker, is flown home from Iraq injured, but desperate to get back to work. He and Sami are sent briefly to Afghanistan, then to rejoin the team in Baghdad. In both places they pick up stories that spotlight the human cost of repressive regimes and wars. Kris is long-seasoned, Sami is raw – but in their different ways, they both care for the people as well as the story and the pictures. 

Finally, Sami’s boss Penny offers her carte blanche to go and find the human interest stories the world has forgotten. This takes Sami and Kris to Darfur alongside UN aid workers. (It’s more than half-way through the novel before we circle back to that prologue, so be patient.) Here, two linked incidents suggest both Sami and Kris are right: these are stories that need to be told, and these are stories that – sadly, infuriatingly – may make no lasting difference when they are told.

And then… well, then the story takes a screeching turn I never saw coming, and issues of morality and responsibility are brought front and centre – as is the toll that telling such stories can have on a journalist, which is often not recognised. The final pages are masterful, bringing together all that has gone before and more besides.

If the only journalist characters you know are the caricatures – the gutter press spivs and the manipulative bitches – you’re in for an education here, where rich, rounded, flawed, complex individuals walk through the pages underlining that the journalism business, like any other field, has a mix of the magnificent, the malignant and the majority in the middle striving to inform the public of what is going on. 

My day job is in journalism, and the novel pulled me back to thinking of days of awful breaking news and coping mechanisms, and of colleagues who would vanish and then pop up a few days later in the shape of words to be subbed under a picture byline with a helmet on and the dateline of a war zone. You should take a moment to read the dedication and the acknowledgements; this has obviously been an immensely personal project for Sultoon. 

The word I keep coming back to while reading was “visceral”. The Shot is an often a tough read, uncompromising and unflinching in its determination to show the wide shot as well as the close-up; the 360-degree view, not just one side. But ultimately it’s a tour de force and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Sarah Sultoon is a journalist and writer, whose work as an international news executive at CNN has taken her all over the world, from the seats of power in both Westminster and Washington to the frontlines of Iraq and Afghanistan. She has extensive experience in conflict zones, winning three Peabody awards for her work on the war in Syria, an Emmy for her contribution to the coverage of Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015, and a number of Royal Television Society gongs. As passionate about fiction as non-fiction, she recently completed a Masters of Studies in Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge, adding to an undergraduate language degree in French and Spanish, and Masters of Philosophy in History, Film and Television. When not reading or writing she can usually be found somewhere outside, either running, swimming or throwing a ball for her three children and dog while she imagines what might happen if … Her debut thriller, The Source, which was a Number 1 bestseller on Kindle, is currently in production with Lime Pictures.

You can follow her on Twitter here: @SultoonSarah

If you want some non-fiction further reading, I recommend Unreasonable Behaviour, the autobiography of renowned photographer Don McCullin, and In Extremis: The Life Of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsay Hilsum. If you get your news from Twitter, you could do worse than follow news agencies Reuters, AP and AFP, which have correspondents in dozens of countries and are known for their factual accuracy. And – sadly, infuriatingly – the fighting in Darfur, while not now considered all-out war, continues. Since it began in 2003, the UN says about 300,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced, as reported by The Guardian on the day I write this. 

Dn’t forget to check out all the other reviews on the blog tour!

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