Published March 2009 by Harper Collins
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours
Saira Qader is watching over her sister's daughter, as the book opens, because her sister has been shot. Thinking of Ameena takes Saira on a journey into her past, from the time the sisters were little girls right back to the present.
Of Indo-Pakistani descent, but born and raised in the U.S., the two are as different as they can be. Ameena is the "good" daughter, bound to follow the rules and the traditions of their culture. But Saira has always been a little unruly, has always been one to question "why." When she is sent to Pakistan to attend a cousin's wedding, she learns the real reason her mother has refused to attend and so much more about her family and their history. She learns about her maternal grandfather, who left her Indian grandmother for a young Englishwoman before she was even born and she's able to meet the woman and the aunts her mother has never acknowledged. She's able to learn about her paternal grandfather, a man who spent great amounts of time fighting for India's independence from Britain, who lamented the separation of the land into India and Pakistan, all while suffering pain losses in his own life. Knowing these things only seems to convince Saira that being the good little Indo-Paki daughter is not for her. When Ameena enters into an arranged marriage, Saira becomes convinced that, like her great-aunt, Big Nanima, she will never marry.
"But it was a sour proposition to have to contemplate--that there would be any such "we" in my future. That my marriage--that any part of my adult life--would be determined by "we." I thought of Big Nanima, living alone in her little house. That's what I wanted for myself. Space. Freedom."
Instead she attends college, does all of the things her parents would disapprove of, and travels the world as a journalist. But on 9/11, along with so many thousands of others, Saira's life is changed forever.
My sister told me this weekend that she heard that you should probably live where most of the books you love are set. I guess that means I should be, at the very least, considering a trip to India. Because, yet again, I have found a book centered around Middle Eastern culture that I couldn't put down.
Because of the time span of the book, there almost appear to be "parts" of the book. Haji has gone into great detail about certain time periods, then skips over years before picking up the story again. This doesn't always work for me, but Haji has managed to make the story flow for the most part. Learning about the culture, learning about the Indian/Pakistani separation and looking at the world from a different perspective really captivated me. Haji also manages to work in some references to other literary works, including Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" and Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women."
"My mother, I decided, had morphed into some kind of Indo-Pak version of Mrs. Bennet. Ameena was typically quiet. The shy, blushing-bride routine would come naturally to her, I decided, recalling Jane with some bitterness. So, who was I supposed to be? Lizzy?
More like Jo to Ameena's Meg, I decided later, during dinner."
Haji writes of living in the modern world, making your own way, while not entirely turning your back on your culture's history.
"You are a young woman from a different time and place. You have to decide what you want fro your life. But don't be too quick to throw away all of the old to embrace the new. Make room for both, Saira. This old family network--it is with us when we are born, why we marry--as your mother is using it now--and when we die. It is not always a bad thing. Here people don't die alone in their apartments, unmissed and unnoticed for weeks, as I have heard happens in America. In our culture, you are defined by who you are to other people--someone's daughter, wife, mother, sister, aunt. "There is a lot here, and it doesn't always work. At one point there is a speech that lasts several pages regarding journalism's merit versus fiction's merit. After a bit, I just jumped ahead to get back to the meat of the story. Occasionally Haji can get a little preachy.
But, overall, this is a wonderful story about what it means to be part of a family and part of a particular culture. This would make a good book club selection; there's a lot here to discuss.
Thanks to Trish, and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!