books reviews

Book Review– A PLACE FOR US

It had been some time since I cried reading a book. A Place for Us did that for me.

Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel by Hogar Publishers with Sarah Jessica Parker’s imprint (her debut as an editorial director too) is a story of an American Muslim (South Asian) family torn between finding their individual selves and their roles within the family that is headed by a strict Muslim father. In a deeply polar American society, it is a family whose characters are in a constant battle with themselves, their family and the world around them to find relevance, liberty and peace and to identify with the same.

A Place for Us begins with the wedding celebration of the eldest daughter Hadia in California. It’s special not just because Rafiq and Layla’s first child us getting married but more so because Amar, the youngest child and only son has come back home to be a part of the celebrations, after three years of having fled. The story would revolve around circumstances that led to Amar’s estrangement with the family, interwoven between memories of the parents—Rafiq and Layla—and their children, Hadia, Huda and Amar, that go back and forth in time.

What I found beautiful about the book was how the story progresses through the point of view of different characters, often repeating the same memory from how different characters saw it and how it affected them in smallest of ways—typical of familial love, limitless and unwavering, and yet envious and rival. Sometimes it might feel like a typical diaspora family, dislocated and misplaced—parents trying to raise their kids on not only strong Muslim (Shia) values but also inherently South Asian ones, i.e. extrinsically motivated, God fearing and society pleasing—and yet it’s also a family that may just be any other South Asian family: native language speaking at home, ‘kasam’ giving, sibling-secret-keeping because the parents would never understand certain stuff, and ritual following: of Ramzans, and Moharrams and Jashans and wedding rasams and walking under the shade of Quran, or tracing Ya Ali on the foreheads of your loved ones.

But that’s just the feel good part of the book. What was heart wrenching, tormenting and yet absolutely relevant for our part of the world is how families are destroyed because of the parents’ ego—of loving but not expressing their love; of having their own set expectations from their children, where kids have to be obedient children, unquestioning Muslims and top performing students who go on to become doctors and engineers and lawyers and businesspeople, nothing less; of never apologizing to their children even in the face of a grave mistake that might lose them their child; of comparing their children with others’, even with their own so that the only recipient of love is the child who is the smartest and most obedient.

So when Amar leaves, a part of Rafiq and Layla’s soul also leaves. But it’s too late to mend ways. Perhaps the saddest thing in the world is to see your child (so let down from the people who gave birth to him) leave you. But it’s dejecting for the child too, to resort to leaving them, for he could not think of a single thing that could revive his relationship with his parents. There is not a single more heart breaking thing than the feeling of not feeling at home with your family.

And so I cried when the family tore apart because of secrets, betrayals, and smallest of estrangements that accumulated and could not be contained any more.  The truly emotional part of the book that actually made me cry was the last part, from Rafiq’s perspective. The feelings of a father—not so overt in expressing his love, who is guilty and yet protective—are written so raw and bare, it’s a pleasant surprise coming from a debut author. As much as this part is emotional and poignant, it leaves a feeling of longing in you, in a way that you would want to mend how each member of the family has been wronged.

Fatima Farheen Mirza has done an amazing job penning down the story of this family spread over decades, which is so interconnected and yet so dissociated from each other in its own way—in children trying to find their own identity, in parents trying to protect their children, loving them while also not expressing it, in understanding them and yet not understanding them enough to save them from themselves.

A Place for Us is a story of perhaps every South Asian middle class family (not just American) that struggles with the idea of expressing their wholehearted love.

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Book Review–Ashes, Wine and Dust

“There are no plans, just people fooling themselves by attempting to design their fates and futures. It makes them feel invincible, even if it’s for a transient period of time.”

Ashes, Wine and Dust is the debut novel of Kanza Javed, which was shortlisted for Tibor Jones South Asia Prize 2013, making her the youngest and the only Pakistani writer nominated for the prize that year.

Set in Lahore and Washington DC, Ashes, Wine and Dust is a journey of a young girl, Mariam, whose childhood experiences of loss of loved ones and memories associated with them make her feel everything a little more deeply. Thus, since her childhood, she feels more connected with the memories of her dada (paternal grandfather) and less with the rest of the family.

Memories of her childhood friends and confidants 10403138_1186536494695904_912160836046943541_nstill haunt her when she decides to leave for the US for further studies and in search for self-exploration. Thus, America awaits her with the mysterious art work of her uncle who had left her family years ago, his family who no longer cares for his work, and an unexpected incident that leaves her vulnerable in an estranged land. And while Mariam is figuring out on how to cope with her current situation, she finds out about the disappearance of her younger brother, Abdullah.

Alone in a foreign country with a brother missing, she blames herself for Abdullah’s disappearance and eventually travels back home in search of clues which might lead her to him.

As the family goes through the trauma of loss of a loved one and ultimately decides to move on albeit slowly, Mariam hangs on to the clues that Abdullah has left and vows to unite him with their family.

Javed’s Ashes, Wine and Dust is an excruciatingly beautiful read with strong characters that are often difficult to find in a debut novel. The story is gripping and engulfed in such an exuberant tone of despair and desolation of the protagonist that it keeps you in the mood even after you’ve finished the book.

The imagery of Lahore with its canals, food, colourful bazaars (markets) and backdrop of Badshahi Mosque in several scenes brings back the love of Lahore for those who have visited the beautiful city and invites those who still haven’t.

While Ashes, Wine and Dust is a powerfully gripping read till the end, it did let me down towards the end. And although the book ends with a closure, tying all its loose ends, I would have been happier had it ended on a brighter note. Nevertheless, the book is a must read of 2015.

Javed has done a wonderful job writing a novel that is unswerving, profound and painfully beautiful till the very end. Ashes, Wine and Dust would be available across Pakistan by the end of November, so get a copy of the book for a reading full of feels.

 

Average rating: 4.7/5

(This review was first published on ETribune)

Book Review– The Book of Lost and Found

A story of finding love, losing and finding love again. The Book of Lost and Found revolves around a love story of two young people but doesn’t quite end on a happy ending. But sometimes, love stories do not necessarily have to have a happy ending. It’s the imperfection that makes them striking.

The Book of Lost and Found is a debut novel by British author Lucy Foley. Set in London, Paris, Corsica and New York, the author has beautifully strung together relationships and events which unveil the story of love between two friends, Tom and Alice, who find each other fifteen years after they first met at Winnard Cove when they were six years old.

When Kate—an emerging photographer—is handed over an old sketch of a beautiful woman who resembles her late ballerina mother so closely, Kate decides to find out more about the mysterious woman in the drawing. And that is how she gets to know Tom Strafford, the artist of the drawing. Soon Kate finds out about the relationship between herself and the woman in the dr20150116_212357awing, and Alice’s unfaltering love for Tom, but things are not as simple as they seem. Tom has a bright career ahead of him while Alice doesn’t want to burden him with her own problems. This is when Alice makes a decision for both of them that will change the course of their lives.

While Tom pursues his art career and becomes one of the greatest artists of twentieth century, Alice relocates herself in Paris and chooses a path for her that demands hard work, bravery and courage despite the bleak future that might lie in front of her.

At the same time, in her struggle to find answers to the story of Tom and Alice, Kate not only uncovers answers to questions that have been bugging her but also someone who would make her feel special.

The Book of Lost and Found is a beautiful story of relationships and sacrifices, of relationships and friendships lost and found, of dark times and the will that changes those times into a journey worth remembering.

Lucy Foley, with her debut novel has proved herself as a great storyteller, carrying the story back and forth skillfully without exhausting the reader. The exquisite locations throughout the novel add to the classic frame of reference to which the book itself relates to.

PS: Thanks to Harper Collins for providing review copy of the book.