The Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany’s second novel is a bit of a curate’s egg, or maybe a mullah’s omelette: on the one hand it’s a racy campus novel set among the Egyptian ?migr? community of the University of Illinois, while on the other it’s full of undigested lumps of socio-political commentary that appear to have been cut and pasted from an encyclopedia. But despite the catastrophically pedantic opening chapter, there are some treats. The best characters are worthy of an Arabic David Lodge, particularly Professor Graham, a sad, pony-tailed relic of the 1960s counter-culture who pores over his revolutionary press cuttings as if they were sacred relics; and Dr Ra’fat Thabit, more American than the Americans until his daughter runs off with one. Then at the other end of the scale there’s the preposterous, pot-bellied villain Danana, a student informer for the Egyptian security services, whose features cloud over “just as a character’s face changes from good to evil in science fiction movies”, which makes you wonder if a bad science fiction movie is where he really belongs.