I don’t have the patience to write much of an intro for this post because I just want to straight up say this book is incredible! I don’t give five star ratings lightly (in fact the only other books I’ve given five stars to recently are Fonda Lee’s The Green Bone Saga books – that’s it) but THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 is undoubtedly worthy of that accolade. A book that combines mystery, folklore and tradition with unionised djinn, the Egyptian suffragette movement and national liberation struggles to produce a fantastically engaging personal story of colourful characters and wonderfully intelligent world building.
THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 is set in the same universe as the short story A Dead Djinn in Cairo and follows Senior Agent Hamed al-Nasr and his rookie partner Agent Onsi as they investigate the haunting of a magically-powered tram car in an alternative turn-of-the-20th-century steampunk Cairo. What makes it an ‘alternative’ Cairo you might ask? Well, in Clark’s world the barriers between worlds have been broken down by a now infamous scientist/sorceror (the distinction is hard to make anymore), allowing djinn to cross over and populate our dimension. The power of the djinn has not only enabled Egypt to kick the British colonial authorities out of the country, but also catapulted Egypt into the position of a global power. That, and allowed them to construct a city-wide transportation system of magically-powered trams, one of which has become inconveniently haunted.
P. Djèlí Clark has this remarkable novella-writing talent where he’s able to tell such engaging stories of individuals and their personal micro-level tales that are set against incredibly rich and vibrant social and political backdrops. And these two things aren’t just separate segments that he’s clumsily mashed together to form an awkward and misshapen whole; they’re very skilfully interconnected so that the one is beautifully woven into the other, until they become entirely intertwined and impossible to untangle, because each reinforces the other. These are the kinds of things that most writers take several books and thousands of pages to achieve, yet Clark manages to inject his stories with this same level of complexity through razor-sharp language and dialogue, often having single phrases and sentences do the work of entire chapters. One of my favourite parts of the book is one very quick bit of dialogue; when our sleuthing protagonists meet a gender-fluid djinn who unexpectedly changes gender in their presence. Agent Onsi simply says “I’ve heard of this class of djinn. I wonder how they prefer to be addressed? Still remarkably beautiful!” This one piece of dialogue does so much to highlight how gender is a social construct that some djinn have a very different concept of. Just one example of the sheer amount of work Clark’s incisive writing does.
What we see in THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 is the birth of the Egyptian suffragette movement, taking place in an Egypt which is one of the world’s foremost modernising powers. And yet, even though the yoke of colonial oppression has been thrown off, Clark doesn’t idealise the Egyptian society that emerges; there are still social struggles to be waged which are, in themselves, complex and contradictory. Among the Egyptian suffragettes are urban women, housewives and labourers alongside rural peasants and a burgeoning middle class. It’s clear in how Clark writes about his fictional social movements that he has a deep understanding of how social contradictions drive political and economic change and he applies this to his fiction so that his world is complex and deep-rooted, despite this story being so short. This applies just as much to his individual characters as well. For example, Agent Hamed al-Nasr sees himself as a thoroughly modern man who supports women’s right to vote, and yet there are moments of unconscious and ingrained sexism that remain embedded in how he thinks about the world. It doesn’t make him a bad person, but it does give him a level of complexity to his character that feels very real. Also none of that is ever explicitly pointed out. Clark absolutely trusts his readers to grasp the implications of his characters thoughts and actions. One of my pet peeves in fiction is when writers make fantastic allusions to a character’s personality or beliefs by showing us how they behave or think in particular situations and then ruin it all by feeling the need to directly explain the implications. It betrays a lack of trust in the intelligence of their readers and Clark clearly trusts his readers to understand his characters and the world they live in.
I’ve talked a lot about just how intelligent the writing is, but the story itself is also just incredibly engaging. It’s captivating, it’s entertaining, it’s also funny and, as the mystery reaches its peak, things get a bit scary and disturbing. Honestly, this is just one of the best books I’ve ever read and I’ve said this a lot recently, but P. Djèlí Clark has cemented himself as one of the smartest and most talented writers out there right now and is certainly a new favourite of mine.
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