This is my favorite book of the year so far. It was everything I like in a book – really character-driven, about complex family relationships. It’s about a family where the parents are immigrants to the U.S. and they struggle to raise their children in a culture that is sometimes foreign to them. Their children grow up struggling with the weight of their parents’ expectations and the difficulty of establishing their own identities.
Rafiq and Layla are Muslims from India who raise three children in an unspecified part of California, Hadia, Huda, and Amar. The children are raised in a traditional Muslim household. Hadia and Huda, the daughters, chafe under the restrictions of their parents, but generally follow the rules. Tensions rise with the birth of their son, Amar, who struggles emotionally. Hadia and Huda are closest to their father, but Layla dotes on and worries about Amar, and constantly tries to ease his troubled relationship with his father.
The book begins at a time the children are adults. Hadia is getting married and is hoping her estranged brother Amar will attend. It’s then told in mostly chronological order.
I love a book with a lot of layers, and this book had them. We see this family through the eyes of Hadia, Amar, Layla, and Rafiq, and it’s devastating to see how each character sees their family differently. You see as a reader all the troubles that could have been prevented, but instead grow over time. Every character is to blame at some point for the problems in the family; every character betrays someone they love. Hadia excels in school but she’s terribly jealous of the way her brother is treated differently by their parents. Amar sees his father as a constant source of disapproval.
“There is something about the boys from their community that disappoints her: they do not work as hard as they could, there is a listlessness about them, a lack of longing for another kind of life. They could be anything, go anywhere. With no one to deny them. Any word that is said against them is only to ask: where have you been, and why did you go? How lucky to have a question like that directed toward you. They are the young men of their families. They carry the family name. Everything is designed to cater to them, to their needs, to bend to their wishes.”
I was particularly interested in Layla’s exploration of whether Amar has a disability. He’s emotional and has difficulty concentrating, and he only excels when he feels passionately about something. He questions everything and doesn’t feel he belongs anywhere. His sisters are the opposite and his parents don’t know what to do about him. His life might be different if his parents had gotten more help from his teachers, and if they had been more open to understanding his needs.
“Maybe just that everyone is good except for him, everyone has a lock in them that they have found a key to, and he is all shut up and closed with no key so he looks to each of them when they are listening intently to the duas thinking either there is no key or that he was created without one.”
Also interesting is Huda, a character who is basically a bystander in this story. She’s almost completely left out of the narrative, even as an adult. As a quiet middle child, I sympathized, and I couldn’t help feeling a big chunk of this story was missing. And yet, I don’t think that’s a flaw in the book.
I identified with so much in this book, even though I know very little about the Muslim religion, and my upbringing was very different. I really appreciate the author’s insights about Muslim religion and Indian culture. It’s a book about family dynamics as well as faith and identity. It’s the reason we need to read books by diverse authors, so we can see how their perspectives are similar and different from ours.
I loved the way Mirza wrote this story, from using the different character perspectives to going back and forward in time. The end felt a bit drawn out, but that’s something I often dislike in novels.
This is a book about a family that cares deeply about each other, and yet it seems they can’t help tearing each other apart, even when their intentions are good. It’s not an easy read, but it’s a beautiful one.
Note: I read this book for the Reading Women Challenge (a book featuring a religion other than your own; a multicultural family saga; a book from the 2018 Reading Women Award shortlist).