May 2023
Karosh Taha: In the Belly of the Queen

The book 'In the Belly of the Queen' is lying on a pair of jeans together with red lipstick and nail polish.
© V&Q Books

Structured as two interconnected stories that can be read in any order, Karosh Taha’s formally experimental second novel, In the Belly of the Queen, has echoes of Ali Smith’s How to Be Both.

Before even opening the book, readers of Karosh Taha’s In the Belly of the Queen have to make a choice. As the author explains, ‘a story can be written and read from all directions or from no direction at all’; thus it is up to the reader whether they dive into the novel from the perspective of Amal or Raffiq, teenage protagonists who narrate similar events from wildly different points of view.

This narrative sleight of hand was also employed by Ali Smith in her novel How to Be Both, which gives the reader less choice in the matter (two versions of the book were published, each with a different half first), but shares a few additional features with In the Belly of the Queen: young protagonists searching for their identity, immediate access to characters’ thoughts, a flair for sharply observed dialogue. While Smith’s detour into the Italian Renaissance bears little resemblance to Taha’s setting of a Kurdish German community, both novels interrogate the concept of belonging and give space to women who, whether by force or design, are positioned as ‘outsiders’. 

In Taha’s novel, this woman is Shahira, mother of Amal’s and Raffiq’s friend Younes, and often described as the main protagonist despite remaining an enigmatic presence. Interestingly for a figure who plays so major a role, the reader is locked firmly out of her thoughts; as such, we only ever encounter Shahira through the eyes of others. Yet this fierce-spirited woman, feared and ostracised for taking many men into her bed, holds a particular power over both narrators. Raffiq and Amal are impressed and nonplussed by her; even her own son wishes to escape while also needing to be close to her. Shahira is the central axis of the novel and, in many ways, of her community, yet she is also the epitome of a woman left to fend for herself.

Presenting us solely with other people’s image of Shahira, Taha probes ideas of belonging, community, identity and migration. Language, too, is significant here – in the small differences between words, such as the variation of ‘aunt’ Amal chooses to adopt for her stepmother, but also in their absence, chiefly the silence around Shahira. Recurring symbols and motifs are woven through both stories: jewellery, flowers, the colour red – in nail varnish, bloodied noses, bottles of Coke.

Alongside these textual layers, Taha’s writing holds a sharpness, a simmering tension that leaps off the page in Grashina Gabelmann’s lively translation. In the Belly of the Queen features distinctive voices and a vivid sense of place that underscores its narrators’ struggle to feel they belong. Amal’s story especially carries us on a tidal wave of thought as she contends with her father’s sudden departure and later visits him and his new family in Kurdistan. There, she finds herself trapped once again by a different set of social restrictions (and transgressions) – a situation both specific to her and universally recognisable.

Once we’ve decided where to start, there’s no going back, but Taha’s novel is an impressive feat in any direction. From its unique structure and stylistic choices to the ringing voices of its characters, In the Belly of the Queen is consciously experimental, reminding us there is always more than one way to tell a story.

About the author

Eleanor Updegraff is a committed bookworm with a particular penchant for literature in translation. She makes her living from words in all forms: as a ghostwriter, German–English translator, copy-editor and book reviewer, and author of short stories and creative non-fiction. She grew up in the UK and has lived in Austria in 2015, where she’s often to be found in a coffee shop or running around a lake.

London library: Borrow the original German title of Im Bauch der Königin.

London library: Borrow the English translation of In the Belly of the Queen.

E-Library: Borrow the original German title of Im Bauch der Königin digitally.

Find out more about the blog.

Book Blog Overview