For the ones who have recently tuned in, I highly recommend reading this enthralling novel from the first chapter. To give a brief idea about the premise of the story, the protagonist is Neina Nyala, an African American in her mid-thirties. She’s an architect who lives and works in London, a self-made, accomplished professional and currently working on a prestigious project called the Prophecy Tower.
Neina recently lost her mother in an incident of police brutality, an incident which sparked a movement called Black Lives Matter. As a result, she is suffering from post-traumatic stress and has vivid visions about an alternate world. The people we know of in her life are her father, two brothers, her loyal friend Charlotte, her boss Frankie, ex fiancé Archie and Isla, a young fresher who is a white American and someone Neina sees as a symbol of the hardships she’s faced in her life.
With that quick briefing, without further delay, let’s dive right into chapters 31 to 35!
Chapter 31 has been written by Jana Samy, Year 11, of Sheffield Private School. When the chapter opens, Neina is in her office having a conversation over the phone with Charlotte, a conversation Neina loses track of midway as she’s lost in her own thoughts and abruptly hangs up the call. Charlotte accepts and understands her friend's behaviour as she’s aware of the traumatic events she has gone through, and how it is affecting her physically and mentally.
Neina tries to get back to work, stoically telling herself that she will not allow her mind to surrender to the fantastical thoughts and visions she has been having, and forces herself to concentrate. She is “determined to trick her tumultuous, chaotic subconscious and fight desperately to maintain her grounding in reality”.
Neina picks up her pen and begins to write down her thoughts:
“Holding her pen, her weapon, she felt formidable. Although architecture was a career fulfilling enough to keep her distracted, writing was a passion she had possessed, that had possessed her, for years. It was her source of freedom; her only source of freedom”
With the newly dawned clarity of thought, Neina realises the dichotomy within her mind- heaven and hell, two worlds residing together in her head. She reflects on all the positive aspects of her life- her father, brothers, Charlotte and her job. She’s conscious of the fact that recently her mind has been possessed, almost hijacked by aggravating 'thoughts'.
Neina has a moment of retrospection:
“The reality she had hidden away for so long finally hit her - her mother’s death didn’t only affect her, but it must have also impacted her brothers and her father. Although she felt lonely, deserted and abandoned, she wasn’t going through this alone.”
This is an important realisation because it is for the first time that Neina accepts that others share the same grief that she is going through. The loss is just as profound and debilitating for the members of her family as it is for her. As a reader, I hope that this realisation will encourage Neina to reach out to people around her to overcome her anguish rather than be engulfed by the throes of a private hell.
However, the very next moment she picks up the argyle scarf and once again she’s transported to her chaotic world of visions where she sees the dead body of her brother hanging from an oak tree. The chapter ends with Neina hearing a voice telling her-
"Let everything happen to you Neina. Beauty and terror. Just keep going, no feeling is final."
Annabelle O’Connor, Year 11, of Jumeirah College takes over for Chapter 32. When the chapter opens, Neina is trying to keep herself firmly rooted in reality and concentrate on her work. As readers, we have seen Neina oscillating so much between reality and morbid illusion that to see her determined to be in the real world is a breath of fresh air!
But no, this sense of relief does not last long for once again Neina’s mind transports her to an alternate world, to a desert in the Mors World and, once again, she meets Janus, the animated version of the scarecrow of her childhood farmhouse. As she quizzically looks at Janus, she’s reminded of the origins of his name:
“Janus, the Roman god of “duality-doorways, beginnings and endings”
This could be indicative of the duality that exists in Neina’s mind, reality and illusion, the two worlds she sways between.
Neina realizes that Janus is a like a puzzle piece just like a lot of other things are in her life at the moment and it will take its due course of time to find all pieces and make them fit. The chapter ends with Neina asking Janus if what she’s seeing- the desert, him- is real and he replies, helpfully:
“I suppose that’s up to you kiddo.”
Chapter 33 has been penned by Katie Meldrum, Year 9, of Safa Community School. Fighting her thoughts away, Neina once again tries to immerse herself in work. As she’s deep into work, Isla walks into her office and tells her that she’s been working for hours and everyone else has gone home. Neina looks out of the window and realises that it was pitch black outside. Working at her desk, she had not realised that it was really late and that it was time to go home. Neina tells Isla that she’ll pack her things and get going. Isla replies that she will wait for her downstairs.
Neina packs up for the day and walks out of the building. All of a sudden, she feels an icy grip on her arm. It is Isla's. She gives Neina a deathly glare and tells her:
“I got rid of your mother, now all I have to do is get rid of you.”
Neina desperately tries to take control of the situation. She’s determined that she will not let Isla overpower her. She looks around the street and finds a broken bottle and flings it at Isla with full force. It hits Isla on the cheek and blood comes oozing out from the wound. In the blink of an eye, Isla is gone and to her horror, Neina realises that it is actually Charlotte that she has viciously hurt.
Chapter 34 has been written by Joli Lindberg, Year 8, of Kent College. The chapter opens with Neina reeling with shock and fear seeing Charlotte so horrendously wounded:
“Charlotte's cheek was completely cut open, with her teeth visible through the sinews of her cheek, muscle and blood pooling out.”
Charlotte lifelessly slumps to the ground and Neina desperately tries to find her phone to call for help. Just then, the ground “started to crack like glass, a ball smashed through it. They were plunged into a sea of darkness.”
The ground has split open and we see Neina and Charlotte falling into a bottomless bit. (I can’t help a little chuckle at this time. We as readers know that this is not the first time the ground has disappeared under Neina’s feet. From next week onwards, I’m strictly going to keep a track of the number of falls. So when and if a fall comes, I’m going to refer to it by number.)
Anyway, let’s get back to the story and fall through the bottomless pit with Neina and Charlotte. It is dark and seems like an endless void. Neina is struggling to think coherently and make her mind accept the fact that all that is happening to her cannot be real. Suddenly, a figure draped in all black appears and laughing hysterically ( Self musing: Should I keep track of the “hysterical” laughs/screams also?).
She tells Neina:
“Poor, pitiful child. The world plays a cruel game with you."
Before she can comprehend the words, Neina sees the mysterious, cloaked woman dragging the supine body of Charlotte away. As Neina struggles to help Charlotte, she hears her name being called out. It’s Frankie who is trying to wake her up. He tells her that she had “passed out” on her desk.
Okay, so just to give you a firm grasp of what is real and what is not. All that happened through Chapters 33 and 34 - Isla coming to Neina’s office, Neina inflicting a wound on Isla and later realizing it’s Charlotte she’s hit, the fall- it was all the vision Neina was seeing while she passed out.
She hurriedly rushes to Charlotte’s office but instead of finding her, she finds someone else, her brother Ryder...
Manal Fatima, Year 10, of Star International Al Twar has taken over the reigns for Chapter 35. The chapter opens exactly where the previous one concluded- Neina is face to face with Ryder.
If we do a quick recollection of the past chapters, every time Neina has thought of Ryder, it is with a sense of warmth, love and concern. In Chapter 30 she’s worried that “her brave but vulnerable brother might be in some sort of trouble.” She even tells Charlotte that Ryder has not been taking her calls and it is making her anxious. Going by the past references, our expectations as readers would be that Neina would be relieved and happy to see her brother. Instead, she’s shocked and frozen:
“Neina’s mind screamed at her to speak, recoil from the man in front of her, scream, or something! But she couldn’t. Her eyes were wide and dilated while her breath was shallow and uneven.”
Ryder rolls his eyes and asks Neina:
“I thought you’d be happier to see me!”
Exactly my thoughts as a reader.
Neina thinks that something is really “off” about him. He tells her that she’s been working too hard and it’s reflecting on her face. Then he says something similar to what the cloaked woman in her vision told her:
“It almost feels as if the world is being a little extra cruel to you.”
This throws Neina off balance and she tells Ryder that she needs to find Frankie. She walks into Frankie’s office and enquires about Charlotte and also questions him as to what is Ryder doing in the office. Frankie tells her that Charlotte might have gone out to take a break and that Ryder works in the office... Frankie tries to pacify her and tells her to take a break or reach out for help... anything that makes things easier for her. She shrugs him off and asks for Charlotte again. He tells her that she had gone out for lunch with Ryder an hour earlier.
Neina goes back to her office. As she’s sitting at her desk trying to assess the situation, Ryder pops in and asks to borrow a USB stick. Before leaving, Ryder tells her:
“Let’s hope that the world doesn’t play any more cruel games with you”.
Neina realizes that while in the past her brother always evoked a feeling of warmth in her, now she’s terrorized by him and she cannot understand why.
“She knew that if she couldn’t figure it out, everything she loved would come crashing down around her. And it would all be her fault, regardless whether Mor’s world had something to do with it, everything to do with it or nothing to do with it.”
The chapter ends with Neina hearing Charlotte’s voice calling out to her telling her to hurry.
I would like to take a moment to appreciate what the students from across the UAE have been able to achieve in the past 7 weeks: A never before attempted feat of creating a story together, linking different thoughts and perceptions. I truly believe that this wonderful collaboration has no precedent and all those who have been a part of this challenge and will be in the coming weeks are truly creating history.
By the end of next week, we would have reached the midpoint of the intended length of the novel. That would be a good point to start working towards a solution- not figuring out the culmination of the novel itself (it is too early for that); rather building towards it with more tangible steps without being trapped in clichés of the ground slipping under the feet or the protagonist wandering through a parallel world and then realizing that she had just passed out.
We know that the central character is going through emotional and mental trauma and as a reader I’m expecting the cobwebs of her mind to be cleared in the coming weeks, maybe decoding her muddled up thoughts through therapy sessions as was suggested to her by her doctor. One never knows what mysteries we might unravel in there and at the same time give out a very relevant message to undo the stigma attached with mental wellbeing which is a pivotal topic in today’s world.
Like I said at the start, I am totally hooked to this story and I cannot wait for next week’s chapters. Neina has claimed a spot in my heart and I’m so looking to find out how she finally makes all the pieces of the puzzle of her life fall into place...