Sarfraz Manzoor's memoir of his youth in the "London backyard" town of Luton stretches from 1974, when he arrived in the UK with his Pakistani family, to November 2006 and the latest in a long line of Bruce Springsteen concerts. "The Boss" is the presiding genius of Greetings from Bury Park, whose title is a play on his 1973 album Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ. For Manzoor, Luton is to London as Jersey City is to NYC: proletarian versus metropolitan, periphery versus centre, boredom versus cool.
Manzoor's story will be familiar to migrants the world over. His father worked in a factory for a decade before earning enough to summon his family to Britain. The dislocation placed enormous pressure on "Saf" and his sisters and brothers to conform: mind, body and soul. The tortuous negotiation between parents and children that ensued (the ever-resourceful Manzoor persuaded his dad that attending a rock concert was the equivalent of watching Panorama) reflects the serious - and ongoing - generational divide in Britain's south Asian communities.
At certain points in his early life, alone among his siblings, Manzoor rejected the lumpen destiny of the majority of the south Asian diaspora in Britain - respectable career, marriage, kids, etc - and struck out on his own. Music - more particularly, Springsteen's songs of blue-collar rebellion - was the catalyst for this adventure. Yet his father, Mohammed, is not portrayed as a monstrous oppressor, but as a real individual enmeshed in a complex relationship with his increasingly "western" son (through all of this, Saf spoke to his parents only in Urdu).
Greetings from Bury Park successfully evokes not only a particular time and place, but, more importantly, a pervasive sense of marginality. The 7/7 London bombers hailed from a scattering of ex-factory towns not unlike Luton. These towns' anomie and stifling lack of creativity - a source of mockery in the 1970s - turned to deadly nihilism three decades on, when extremists manufactured bombs from chapatti flour and hair bleach.
For a long time, Islam was presented to Manzoor as punitive rather than uplifting. When, in the 1980s, Luton experienced a large influx of young Muslims, the religion left him with "only a dull headache". It is not coincidental that, until it was closed down, the extremist group al-Muhajiroun had an office close to Manzoor's home.
Yet Manzoor has written extensively on radical Islam elsewhere; Greetings from Bury Park is a very personal narrative of love, separation, loss and guilt. At the heart of the book is the tragedy that only after his father's death did Manzoor lay aside his resentment and begin to get to know him. In a memoir so concerned with belonging, foreignness and roots - even down to the family's careful cultivation of a vegetable garden - the shift in values and priorities that follows Mohammed's death assumes a poignant significance. But in telling this story, Manzoor avoids self-indulgence and grandiosity. His tone never strays into the redemptive: this is no disguised tale of self-improvement.
The dynamics of Manzoor's eventual liberation are complex. In the 1980s, in the absence of Pakistani working-class heroes with whom he could identify, his life was transformed by the music of "The Boss". In the gradual negotiation of freedom, beautifully depicted in these pages, Manzoor reminds us of the deep sense of hope and rationality that lies at the core of both Islam and modernism: "Reason to Believe". Yet there is a message here for the Pakistani diaspora in the UK - a segment of society that for disparate and depressing reasons consistently underperforms in social and educational terms - that time needs to be called on patriarchy. Greetings from Bury Park is an implicit warning to those in power in the community.