A Place for Us, by Fatima Farheen Mirza

img_2079This novel was everywhere on Instagram, so I got it out of curiosity and after a few weeks waiting on my shelf, I finally picked it up. Time to share my thoughts!

Here is the blurb as found on Penguin UK website, my review follows.

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?

So the novel opens at a wedding. Rafiq and Layla are marrying their eldest daughter Hadia. A marriage of love and choice that they have come to accept. This day also marks the return of Amar, their youngest child and unique son, estranged for reasons unknown.

This reunion is the catalyst for a journey down the memory lane, during which the family dynamics is slowly dissected. The novel, using a third person narrative, shifts between the perspectives of Hadia, Layla and Amar. Interestingly Huda, the middle child, is never given a perspective of her own; while the father remains largely silent, only seen through his children and wife’s eyes, up until the end, when we finally come to know him personally.

We get to know the characters at different times, reliving events that marked them, moments they feel have defined them and shaped their fate. Some of these memories are tender, others filled with guilt and remorse. The questions that haunt them are palpable. When exactly did it become to late to repair what had been broken? Whose fault was it? Why did the cherished son never feel like he belonged? And there is no clear answer to that, just a series of unfortunate circumstances, misunderstandings, hesitations, doubts and mistakes.

“Afsoos was the word in Urdu. There was no equivalent in English. It was a specific kind of regret — not wishing he had acted differently, but a helpless sadness at the situation as it was, a sense that it could not have been another way.”

The temporal structure of the novel is intricate, never linear but seemingly following the flow of the characters’ memories, in a random, emotionally triggered way. I was impressed by how the author, whose debut it is, mastered this complex timeline. I did not feel lost at all. It was a unique experience, not really living an action with a debut, a middle and an end, but mainly living through the memories of the characters.

“She always sensed conditions to their parents’ love and so she did nothing to threaten it.”

I was accompanying this family through their reminiscences, jumping from memory to memory, snippets of their lives playing before my eyes. This made for a unique atmosphere, a novel where most of the action seems muffled, taking place through a haze, inside a cocoon. I guess it is how you feel when you’re roaming someone’s mind. The noisy outside world seems so far away as we are deeply buried in this family’s soul.

“Any hurt he caused, any disappointment he brought — it only amplified her place in their parents’ life, and their love for her.”

The writing here is simple. The author does not attempt to get flowery or weave complicated metaphors. I am usually a sucker for sophisticated prose. But here the clear description of the scenes, the simple, sometimes naive evocation of the characters’ emotional turmoil, seems perfectly appropriate, especially when describing childhood experiences. In fact, this bare, sometimes flat writing exhales a lyricism of its own.

This book has been surrounded by a lot of hype. And I think it is well earned, especially when you think it is a debut novel. It is not a spectacular story, and the theme is familiar. But Mirza’s take on it is delicate and full of empathy. She tells a story she knows about, tells of characters she loves. And you feel it.

Some readers may recognise themselves in the experience of an immigrant, Muslim family in a western country, in the tale of the pressure the religious beliefs of the parents can put on their children. But it is the universal themes of filial love, family unity, guilt, regret and the need for belonging that really touched me. Rafiq and Amar relationship’s is heartbreaking. The tension between love and anger, tolerance and strictness; the difficulty for the father to find a place in a fusional mother-son relationship, are well rendered.

“There is no such thing as friends, only family, and only family will never desert you.”

Conclusion : A graceful and warm family portrait that gently broke my heart. The quiet pacing, the absence of vigorous action, may not appeal to everyone. But if you like evocative, slow burn, character driven novels, then you may very well find yourself entranced.

If you made it to the end of this long review, and feel like reading this accomplished debut novel, head over there!

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