Khan's first novel imagines the precarity of a Cambridge life, only slightly removed from our reality, and all the more fantastical for itAbdullah Khann

Take your seventeen-year-old expectations of Cambridge life, combine them with the tourist Oxbridge fantasy and embrace the oddities of our university. Introducing: The Faces. 

This short novel for young teens spins a delightful mystery and adventure story from the Cambridge Bubble. If you have Cambridge grad relations whose children are just entering their teens, consider Abdullah Khan’s debut novel by way of introduction to the university lifestyle; you will simultaneously be donating to charity, as 20% of the profits go to the Great Ormond Street Hospital. 

Corpus clock's already strange creature becomes all the stranger in Khan's debut novelAbdullah Khan

I can think of just one audience who would loathe this story: Oxford students. In fact, the novel could be mistaken for one of Varsity’s “Love Letters to Cambridge” espoused over lockdown, such is the intensity of this dedication. If enjoyed by a reader not fully introduced to Cambridge, this story will both meet and exceed the stereotype. We’re talking midnight mischief, unceasing references to “plodge” and a meditation on what it really means to carpe diem. 

Over the course of the book, we see protagonist Elio stumble across the night time world of FantaBridge, where names are reversed (Wirginia Volf) and statues miraculously come to life. The nightly parties are raucous and invisible to the humans of the city – it’s like May Balls, but with Isaac Newton appearing in the survivors’ photo. Elio engages with the residents of FantaBridge, helps thwart an evil plot and finds love as a result of this wild night. 

An amusing quirk of The Faces is the personification of the city of Cambridge. Cambridge is our narrator and it is the narrator’s body, as the city, which the characters traverse each day. At times this feels forced and trite, with references to the “tongue-floor” and “chest-court”. However, the effect is achieved, if not by the personification of Cambridge, then by the night spent in FantaBridge. This night has a crucial impact on Elio’s perceptions of himself and the city around him; haven’t we all experienced a formative moment in Cambridge? Khan effectively captures the feeling of being one small student in a vast history, simultaneously anticipating the future and in awe of the transience of each day, each party, each new experience. 

The nightime world of FantaBridge exists alongside and inside the day-to-day Cambridge, and every student might have seen hints of it around the city in their own livesAbdullah Khan

Various moments in Elio’s narrative apprehend the precarious nature of student life: climbing out onto a rooftop to avoid the porters, feeling like the only person who is befuddled by odd traditions and wanting to capture a memory which will never be the same again: “He felt an urge to make memories, capture this extraordinary night, but not change as a person, like the whole ‘university thing’ wanted him to.” At one point in the riotous party held by FantaBridge residents, uproarious crowds debate one another as fine wine is served from decanters. Diners mutter amongst themselves, gossiping about the new fellows against the backdrop of an impressive hall. As a Fresher embarking on a first-term deprived of formals, I appreciated feeling part of these flamboyant traditions.

The spirited events in The Faces are accompanied by exquisite illustrations. My attention was especially captured by the illustration conveying the role of the Corpus Clock animal (wasp? monster?), who rounds up the statues of FantaBridge before dawn and ensures that the world of the Mere Mortals never discovers how the FanTabs spent the night. 


Mountain View

Play it as it lays at fifty

At times The Faces seemed to be more of a commentary on the author’s personal life than a novel surrounding the mysteries of old-Cambridge come to life. Are the experiences oft-relatable and amusing? Yes, for a first-year undergrad, but perhaps not for a young teen picking up the book and hoping for a dash of adventure. References to “Mainsburys”, full scholarships and the intense workload felt jarring in this context. 

Overlooking the frequent grammatical errors (which will be fixed in the reprint) and somewhat autobiographical tone, which often leads to oversharing, The Faces is a dynamic commemoration of the Cambridge lifestyle and one that will delight the imaginations of many. 

Abdullah Khan is a second year student at Clare College

The Faces is available at Waterstones and Heffers for £4.99