Mary Shelley’s original 19th century Frankenstein referenced Lucifer in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Iraqi writer Ahmed Saadawi has set his recent novel in a modern-day hell: Baghdad in 2005. The capital was hopeful two years after Saddam Hussein’s toppling and a new constitution had just been ratified. However, residents soon realised that Baghdad was already tragically deep into an anarchic descent. This is Saadawi’s first work to be translated into English. He is the first Iraqi winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, appropriately signalling the tenacity of Baghdad — a city with a rich literary heritage — as it suffers rampant insurgencies and the highest number of terrorist attacks in the world.

The novel opens with a suicide bombing in a residential neighbourhood. Unnervingly, the eccentric but seemingly innocuous junk-furniture dealer Hadi al-Attag is piecing together a corpse from body parts collected at bomb-blast sites. He wants to make a complete cadaver "s...

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