Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Book Review: A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza.

Book: A Place For Us

Author: Fatima Farheen Mirza 

Pages: 400

Publisher: SJP for Hogarth 

Read On: Kindle 

How Long it Took Me To Read: 2 days 

Plot Summary: A Place for Us catches an Indian Muslim family as they prepare for their eldest daughter’s wedding. But as Hadia’s marriage -- one chosen of love, not tradition -- gathers the family back together, there is only one thing on their minds: can Amar, the estranged younger brother of the bride, be trusted to behave himself after three years away? 
A Place for Us tells the story of one family, but all family life is here. Rafiq and Layla must come to terms with the choices their children have made, while Hadia, Huda and Amar must reconcile their present culture with their parents’ world, treading a path between old and new. And they must all learn how the smallest decisions can lead to the deepest betrayals. 
This is a novel for our times: a deeply moving examination of love, identity and belonging that turns our preconceptions over one by one.

Review: Stories set in an immigrant setting have been done over and over. Some with an unmatched poignancy and others recycling the same old tropes. So when a new immigrant story comes out, I pause before I hit purchase. I stop and think if this story, if this new voice has something new to offer. Of course, every story is a little different, every family and every experience has it's own unique shape and form and how it goes on to experience the people that live through it. 

A Place for Us has been showing up everywhere I look online. All over Bookstagram and on Tumblr and even being recommend by several people. I was a little intrigued when Sarah Jessica Parker announced her own imprint within Hogarth Books, a subdivision within Penguin Random House and I was curious to see the book she would pick as her first venture. I was quite chuffed to see an Indian origin writer being picked and I wanted to give this book a read. 

I always find immigrant stories interesting. To understand how their lives played out. Indian immigrant stories are a little different than other cultures, I am not being cavalier but in most cases the Indian immigrant is someone who is going to the West for more opportunities and make a better life but they aren't exactly escaping a dreary existence. Which makes an Indian experience in diaspora peculiarly exquisite one. The struggle between the life left behind and the one you are forging ahead with can be hard but usually makes for an interesting story. 

As a kid growing up in the 90s in India I would always be awed by kids my own age growing up as NRIs. I envied them their wide range of fashionable clothes, the coolest gadgets and their shoes were always cooler than ours. What I didn't envy them at all was the dual lives they sometimes lives. Being half Indian and half something else. Being hot fully Indian and being not quite fully British/American/Canadian. Being confused about how they identified as if they were being Indian enough for their parents. The thing I envied them the least was how sometimes their parents forced them to be uber Indian. And so many parents seem to do this. Raise their kids in the West and give them all the opportunities that come their way but God forbid they imbibe any other Western quality. They are forced to dress a certain way, have certain kinds of friends and still magically inspite of being never raised in their motherland be fully Indian! And when it comes time to get married, they must meekly fall in line and choose a partner picked and approved by their parents. I don't envy anyone living this sort of life. This book does a fantastic job of showing this family grappling with this East-West divide. 

One of my favourite things in this book is the conversation about Hijab. Let me be clear, I am not opposed to the Hijab if that is something the woman chooses out of her own volition. It is her choice and her life and has nothing to do with me or my opinions. I hate nothing more than women telling other women how to live their lives. I love how the author showed us Hadia's reluctance and concerns about drastically changing her look and life and wearing the hijab. I loved how we were shown in an incredibly subtle but sure way how it's an impossible choice to make at 9 years old. Even if the parents are telling you it's your 'choice' and your 'decision', it still comes laced with a strong dose of 'This is the right thing to do' and 'God will reward you for choosing to cover your head'. Can you imagine being nine and hearing these sorts of manipulative things from your parents? Being made to feel like you will be judged for all eternity for a choice that really, even more so in a Western country, will affect the rest of your life. Hell, it may even invite unwanted attention and jibes and at worse harassment and even assault. So is it really even a decision she made? 

The writing in this book is good, I will be most certainly reading more from Miss. Mirza in the future and I do recommend this book if stories about families, faith, love and drama are of interest to you. I enjoyed this book, I did however find it painfully slow in places. The story in told primarily in three voices- Hadia, Layla and Amar. The oldest child, the mother and the youngest child and only son. I liked each voice equally well. I liked how these characters were wonderfully crafted and seemed so real, flaws and all. I especially liked Amar, I don't think I've quite read someone like him. He just doesn't seemed to fit in with his family or in his school. A real misfit who tries his best to make it work. He broke my heart and he is someone I won't forget in a hurry. 

We see the lives of this family at various points in their life. The narrative is non-linear, which is not always my favourite thing but in this book it sorta works. Sorta, at some points I did find myself wondering why we were jumping back and forth in such a seemingly meaningless fashion. There were also clearly parts of the timeline I enjoyed more than others but it would take an age to get back to their point in the story and this is perhaps my biggest grouse with this novel. I also didn't really care for a constant and jarring back and forth. It put me off. 

This was a good enough good, a great debut but it isn't a perfect book and it is not a book for everyone. I liked it but I didn't love it. 

Rating: 3/5 

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