Kia Abdullah – Next Of Kin
Published by HQ, paperback £8.99, also available in ebook and audiobook. I received a copy of the novel from the publisher as I chaired a panel including the author for Bute Noir 2022.
First, the official blurb: Leila Syed receives a call that cleaves her life in two. Her brother-in-law’s voice is filled with panic. His son’s nursery has called to ask where little Max is. Leila was supposed to drop Max off that morning. But she forgot. Racing to the carpark, she grasps the horror of what she has done. What follows is an explosive, high-profile trial that will tear the family apart. But as the case progresses it becomes clear there’s more to this incident than meets the eye…
Being asked to chair a panel is a huge privilege, with the best kind of homework: reading novels. Kia Abdullah was not someone whose books I had read, so it was a treat to pick up a novel by someone new to me ahead of chairing the Sinister Sisters panel – which also featured Helen FitzGerald talking about Keep Her Sweet – at Bute Noir earlier this summer. As an only child it was a real eye-opener into the intensities of sister relationships.
Next Of Kin centres on Leila and Yasmin, sisters whose parents died within a year of each other when Leila was 18 and Yasmin just 10. Leila gave up her dreams of going to university at St Andrews and settled for a course at a local London institution, and a job, so that she could take care of Yasmin. Even 20 years on, a partner in an architecture firm with a husband, journalist Will, Leila finds it hard not to fall into a mothering role – she helps Yasmin, who works as a secretary, and her husband Andrew, who is in IT, with money to move just a few streets away in a leafy, elegant area. She also frequently looks after their son Max, three. But life is not as perfect as it first seems, and while Leila would do anything for her sister, sometimes she has to bite her tongue while doing it.
Andrew calls Leila one morning – he has a work crisis, can she take Max to nursery? On the way to the nursery, she gets a panicked call from her own workplace about missing papers for a hugely important meeting her business partner is about to go to; she calls at the office to sort it out, then things calm down and she can go about her day. We’re so swept up in the moment that it’s a few paragraphs before we realise: Leila has left Max in the car, on a hot sunny day… The world collapses. Paramedics, ambulances, hospital nurses and doctors. But Max cannot be saved.
I’m not a parent but you’d have to be a psychopath not to feel the pain of Andrew and Yasmin at the loss of their son. But we’re nudged to have sympathy for Leila too; she has lost her nephew and has to deal with the thought she played a part in his death, as well as face the justice system. Complexity of relationships and situations, nuances and grey areas, are crucial in this story. Fractures form between all the characters as everyone gets lost in their own world, trying to navigate a way forward.
Finally, the court case begins. At first I thought using the structure of a legal thriller for what is essentially a domestic noir plot was a strange choice, but the adversarial nature of the English court system and the way it examines a piece of information from two sides, offering conflicting interpretations and planting doubt, works remarkably well in constantly shifting the reader’s expectations and sympathies. Parts of the cross-examination of Leila are hard to read, as whether she is deemed caring or callous twists and turns depending on whether it is prosecution or defence speaking to her.
After the trial, there is a pause for breath – and then the floodgates open, and out pours pain, and revelation on twist on chaos follows. Then, finally, Leila chooses what seems to be the only option left. Is it fair? Is it right? The reader is left to decide for themselves.
Secrets and lies are a staple of crime fiction; they always come to light and they always have repercussions – the sisters’ revelations, and their relationship, are central to this novel. The relationship between sisters is complex and often intense; shared history and shared lives can create the closest of bonds even as one or other seeks to shed that straitjacket. Leila has spent her life doing what she thought was the right thing for Yasmin, and Yasmin dismisses Leila’s needs in favour of her own as she always has done, encouraged by her sister. Essentially they cannot escape the roles they fell into after the death of their parents; they have not worked out how to have an adult relationship of equals with each other, and have to face the consequences of that.
The Bute Noir panel discussion was frank, funny and thought-provoking on the subject of sisters; if you were there I hope you enjoyed it and if you were not, I highly recommend you pick up both Next Of Kin and Keep Her Sweet, and reflect on your own sibling relationships.
Kia Abdullah is a best-selling author and travel writer. Her novels include Take It Back, a Guardian and Telegraph thriller of the year, and Next Of Kin which was longlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger Award and named Times Book of the Month. She is the founder of Asian Booklist, a non-profit organisation that advocates for diversity in publishing, and after a stint at Rough Guides, she founded Atlas & Boots, an outdoor travel blog now read by 250,000 people a month. She lives in London.