Karachi Vice by Samira Shackle

Karachi. The capital of Pakistan is a sprawling mega-city of 20 million people. It is a place of political turbulence in which those who have power wield it with brutal and partisan force, a place in which it pays to have friends in the right places and to avoid making deadly enemies. It is a society where lavish wealth and absolute poverty live side by side, and where the lines between idealism and corruption can quickly blur. It takes an insider to know where is safe, who to trust, and what makes Karachi tick, and in this powerful debut, Samira Shackle explores the city of her mother’s birth in the company of a handful of Karachiites. Among them is Safdar the ambulance driver, who knows the city’s streets and shortcuts intimately and will stop at nothing to help his fellow citizens. There is Parveen, the activist whose outspoken views on injustice corruption repeatedly lead her towards danger. And there is Zille, the hardened journalist whose commitment to getting the best scoops puts him at increasing risk. As their individual experiences unfold, so Shackle tells the bigger story of Karachi over the past decade: a period in which the Taliban arrive in Pakistan, adding to the daily perils for its residents and pushing their city into the international spotlight. Writing with intimate local knowledge and a global perspective, Shackle paints a nuanced and vivid portrait of one of the most complex, most compelling cities in the world.

Title: Karachi Vice | Author: Samira Shackle | Publisher: Granta Books | Pages: 272 | ISBN: 9781783785391 | Publication date: 4th February 2021 | Source: NetGalley

‘Karachi Vice’ is an interesting piece of reportage, but less entertaining and compelling than I hoped it might be. Written by Samira Shackle, a British journalist with English and Pakistani parents, it follows the lives of five citizens of the capital of Pakistan, Karachi. The book is constructed from interviews she did did on two trips to the city and certainly gives a flavour of life in such a turbulent metropolis. What it lacks is the energy and strong storytelling that might have made it a more gripping read. It certainly doesn’t live up to the exploitative promise of its title.

There are certainly some interesting characters here, I particularly enjoyed reading about Safdar, an ambulance driver who spends most of his time collecting corpses and Zille, a television journalist whose work frequently puts him in the firing line. In fact all five are well chosen and each adds something different to the picture of Karachi that Shackle paints. Of course, the city itself comes out as a character too: violent and desperate as it is fractured again and again by terrorism, crime and political  corruption.

The problem for me was that the writing is never as good as the subject matter. It’s all a bit staid and scholarly. Shackle writes well about politics but less well about crime, and so the book lacked the drama I wanted it to have. I don’t normally nitpick on the intricacies of an author’s writing, but the fact that Shackle re-uses two dollar words didn’t help matters. “Higgledy piggledy” and “febrile” both cropped more than once.

If the subject matter appeals, this is still worth a read though. The subjects are all interesting and Karachi itself is fascinating. What’s more, there’s never been a more important time than now to understand the lives and experiences of fellow humans around the world. ‘Karachi Vice’ certainly gave me a better awareness of everyday life in Pakistan.

3/5

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