Trials: On Death Row In Pakistan by Isabel Buchanan

So I’m posting this on a bit of a delay and, for once, it’s not because I forgot or ran out of time but because I wanted to wait until after the Saltire Literary Awards took place before I posted this review. Thanks to the Society of Young Publishers, I was lucky enough to join the Shadow Panel for the First Book Award at the annual Saltire Society Literary Awards. Trials: On Death Row In Pakistan by Isabel Buchanan was the first book I picked up on the list and while it was a slow starter, I enjoyed it in the end.  I wrote this before the awards took place so the winner (a joint victory for Trials and Chitra Ramaswamy’s Expecting) has no bearing on my thoughts.

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Trials: On Death Row In Pakistan is a non-fiction book written by Scottish lawyer, Isabel Buchanan. It chronicles her time working in a new legal chamber in Lahore, Pakistan under the watchful eye of a young and forceful Pakistani lawyer, Sarah Belal, who has made it her life’s mission to defend those condemned to death row in Pakistan. It follows the stories of several condemned inmates, short biographies of the other employees at Sarah’s chambers and tales of controversial blasphemy and unjust laws.

I studied Postcolonial Literature in my undergrad so this isn’t a text that I felt completely unfamiliar entering into. However, because of my studies, I’m hyper aware of the Western desire to portray Pakistan and the “mysterious East” as uncivilized, unfair and  inferior to Anglo-American society. So I approached Trials with enthusiasm to read something different after a summer of Young Adult fiction but also with caution after a year of studying Gayatri Spivak and Edward Said.

Buchanan treads a fine line between hard-hitting evidence and enchanting storytelling in this book. The opening page is a perfect example of this as she begins with the story of Mr Hussein who makes “the best chips and curry sauce in East Lothian.” For someone with an aversion to all things legal, except maybe binge-watching Suits on  Netflix, I was put at ease by the gentleness of this opening but make no mistakes: Trials is not a light or easy read and it quickly takes a turn towards a factual hurricane. Case after case, law after law, I was thrust into a world of blasphemy, bad handwriting, and badass women. All of which were, at times, intimidating.

The strong women are my favourite thing about Trials. Gayatri Spivak once said: ‘If, in the contest of colonial production, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is, even more deeply in shadow.’ (Spivak, Cambridge: 1999) So it was refreshing to read a book set in Pakistan that features two women at the centre fighting for a cause they believe in as opposed to being portrayed as victims. Sarah Belal is one of the coolest women I’ve read in contemporary literature. I’ve since researched Belal a little and she is just as brilliant in real life as Buchanan portrays her in Trials. She’s the founder of Justice Project Pakistan which aims to serve the poorest prisoners facing the harshest punishments in the courts of law. She is incredibly intelligent and relentless in her pursuit of justice. If you don’t read this book then at least google her!

At times I struggled to understand what this book was supposed to be doing. Is it simply a chronicle of Buchanan’s time in Pakistan? Was it supposed to be provocative? Subjective or objective? I appreciated that Trials takes a step away from “court-drama Hollywood portrayal” of advocates and law firms but, at times, I felt like this book lost its path.

At times I got lost in the legal facts and for this reason, I wouldn’t recommend Trials to everyone. However, I do think the stories Buchanan is telling in this book are insurmountably important. Women like Sarah Belal are role models for the next generation of lawyers and activists so I’m glad that I had the opportunity to read it. Mostly I’d recommend this book to budding lawyers and maybe to anyone considering applying to study Law or Sociology at University but unless you have an avid interest in the world of law or postcolonial studies, I’m not too sure this is one for the Christmas list.


Spivak, Gayatri ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ from Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999) p32

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