Review | The world turned upside down

In Leo Zeilig’s recent novel, the global elite are targeted for murder amid a growing social upheaval that sweeps the central character around the world. Andrew Stone reviews this focused and ‘righteously angry’ book.

Leo Zeilig, The World Turned Upside Down (Ibadan: Books Farm House, 2021) 352pp, £7.99

The super-rich are scared. A wave of ‘One Percent Murders’ are targeting the wealthiest, most detestable capitalists. And even worse, for them, than these terroristic assassinations, is that the exploited are beginning to collectivise and resist.

Set in a world very similar to our own, but with the notable difference that a global viral pandemic hit in 2004 (perhaps a more deadly SARS outbreak?), the novel is narrated by Bianca Ndour, a superstar radical academic. While there are some notes of Naomi Klein, Arundhati Roy and Angela Davis, Ndour is a compelling, flawed character in her own right. The daughter of a Senegalese mother and Scottish oil worker, she is brought up in a privileged Shell compound in Nigeria, educated by family readings of Walter Rodney’s classic How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and trips to the outside world with her pidgin-speaking ‘aunty’, Fawari. 

Ndour makes her name with a lightweight, mindfulness bestseller The Elation of Being, written in the midst of a breakdown. In the years afterwards she becomes increasingly forthright in her social and political radicalism, using her platform and fame to analyse and denounce capitalism and imperialism, while giving a voice to movements such as the Arab Spring of 2011. She is eloquent as well as vociferous, and her lectures, while lengthy at times, rarely outstay their welcome. They balance out a book that switches back and forth in time to explore a series of intense relationships and the self-destructiveness that undermines them.

Ndour is black, lesbian and neurodivergent, but none of these aspects of her identity feel artificial or tokenistic, even though the author is a white man. Zeilig is an expert on African politics and history, and this shines through, as does his familiarity with the climates and cultures of the continent, which are evocatively described. This is a novel rooted in solidarity rather than liberal platitudes or tropes, which are regularly targeted and undercut by the protagonist.  There is perhaps an element of wish-fulfilment in how successfully she manages to express and convey her ideas – every activist who has been cut-off in a debate or thought of a witty retort on the bus home will know what I mean by this – but this is an indulgence that I am happy to allow.

The title ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ is from a biblically-inspired ballad of the English Civil War, made famous by Marxist historian Christopher Hill’s exploration of radicals in that period. It’s an appropriate title for a righteously angry novel about revolution in the modern world. It begins with the murder of Charles King, a wryly-named neo-Dickensian grotesque. There is also fun to be had in the thinly-veiled caricatures of two prominent BBC interviewers, and in spotting theoretical and rhetorical flourishes from various leftist traditions.  Though Ndour speaks spontaneously at a picket line for university cleaners for much of the book it is unclear whether she is involved in any kind of organisation. This is not, as it turns out, an oversight, but explicable in terms of both character and plot.

The most traditional element is the ‘whodunnit’ aspect, as two police officers quiz a reluctant Ndour to try to understand the mindset of the unknown anti-capitalist murderer(s). There are a few clues here, but much greater attention is given to the ‘whydunnit’. If you finish reading this book and consider Charles King and his ilk the innocent victims then you really haven’t been paying attention.

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