Ceremony of Innocence by Madeleine Bunting review – on the make in the Middle East

A Cambridge PhD student, Reem Hameed, has gone missing in Cairo and hasn’t responded to her WhatsApp messages for days. Her friend, Fauzia, works on the foreign desk of a newspaper and is well positioned to investigate this disappearance, which turns out to be not entirely unexpected. Indeed Fauzia immediately realises that maybe she knows too much already about why Reem was in Cairo and what she might have found out. Reem was investigating a diplomat, Martin Wilcox Smith, his wife, Phoebe, and the fortune they amassed while in Tehran in the early 1970s. It gets more complicated very quickly. Fauzia is Martin and Phoebe’s daughter-in-law. And Reem knows the family too: Phoebe paid for her grandparents to fly in for her graduation. So whatever Reem has found out is probably something neither she nor Fauzia would like to know about. And whatever it is, it’s going to be at the very least … awkward. One of the first people Fauzia has to call about Reem’s disappearance is Phoebe, who is suspiciously poised on the phone and seemingly unsurprised by the news. But how is she complicit? And what does she know?

This is a wonderfully original and compelling novel that puts you in mind of John le Carré’s The Night Manager or certain scenes from TV’s Succession. It is a cinematic exposé of what ambitious people do when they think no one is looking, especially when they are insulated by entitlement, protected by the circles in which they move. The contrast between ambassadorial, stuffy Englishness and the atmospheric Middle East is cleverly drawn at every turn.

Bunting pulls you in from the first page with the timeline moving seamlessly back and forth between London of the mid-2010s and early 1970s Tehran. It’s a thoughtful and sensitive literary thriller scented with baklava, walnuts and pomegranates that weaves in archaeology and Iranian embroidery alongside far more deadly themes. Intense, detailed and fast-paced, Ceremony of Innocence is an elegant and satisfying read.

Ceremony of Innocence by Madeleine Bunting is published by Granta (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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