As Amar watched the hall fill with guests arriving for his sister's wedding, he promised himself he would stay. It was his duty tonight to greet them. A simple task, one he told himself he could do well, and he took pride in stepping forward to shake the hands of the men or hold his hand over his heart to pay the women respect. He hadn't expected his smile to mirror those who seemed happy to see him. Nor had he anticipated the startling comfort in the familiarity of their faces. It had really been three years. Had it not been for his sister's call, he might have allowed years more to pass before mustering the courage it took to return. He touched his tie to make sure it was centered. He smoothed down his hair, as if a stray strand would be enough to call attention, give him away. An old family friend called out his name and hugged him. What would he tell them if they asked where he had been, and how he was doing? The sounds of the shenai started up to signal the commencement of Hadia's wedding. Suddenly the hall was brought to life and there, beneath the golden glow of the chandeliers and surrounded by the bright colors of the women's dresses, Amar thought maybe he had been right to come. He could convince them all--the familiar faces, his mother who he sensed checking on him as she moved about, his father who maintained his distance--he could even convince himself, that he belonged here, that he could wear the suit and play the part, be who he had been before, assume his role tonight as brother of the bride. *** It had been Hadia's decision to invite him. She watched her sister Huda get ready and hoped it had not been a mistake. That morning Hadia had woken with her brother on her mind and all day she willed herself to think as other brides must--that she would be using the word husband when speaking of Tariq now, that after years of wondering if they would make it to this moment, they had arrived. What she had not even dared to believe possible for her was coming true: marrying a man she had chosen for herself. Amar had come as she had hoped. But when she was shocked at the sight of him she realized she never actually believed he would. Three years had passed with no news from him. On the day she told her parents she would invite him she had not allowed herself to pray, Please God, have him come, but only, Please God, let my father not deny me this. She had practiced her words until her delivery was so steady and confident any onlooker would think she was a woman who effortlessly declared her wishes. Huda finished applying her lipstick and was fastening the pin of her silver hijab. She looked beautiful, dressed in a navy sari stitched with silver beadwork, the same sari that a handful of Hadia's closest friends would be wearing. There was an excitement about her sister that Hadia could not muster for herself. "Will you keep an eye on him tonight?" Hadia asked. Huda held her arm up to slip rows of silver bangles over her wrist, each one falling with a click. She turned from the mirror to face Hadia. "Why did you call him if you didn't want him to come?" Hadia studied her hands, covered in dark henna. She pressed her fingernails into her arm. "It's my wedding day." An obvious statement, but it was true. It did not matter if she had not heard from her brother in years, she could not imagine this day without him. But relief at the sight of Amar brought with it that old shadow of worry for him. "Will you call him here?" Hadia said. "And when he comes, will you give us a moment alone?" She returned Huda's gaze then. And though Huda looked briefly hurt, she didn't ask Hadia to share what she was, and always had been, excluded from. *** As she glided between guests and stopped to hug women she had not yet greeted, it occurred to Layla that this was what she might have pictured her life to look like once, when her children were young and she knew who her family would contain but not what life would be like for them. She walked with a straight back and careful smile and felt this event was hers as much as it was her daughter's. And Amar was nearby. She looked to him between conversations, tracked his movement across the hall, checked his face for any discomfort. The wedding was coming together wonderfully. People were arriving on time. There was a table for mango juice and pineapple juice and another for appetizers, replenished as soon as the items were lifted from the platter. White orchids spilled from tall glass vases on every table. Little golden pouches of gifts waited on each seat for guests to claim. Huda had helped Layla make them and they had stayed awake late in the night, singing a little as they filled each one with almonds and various chocolates, tugging the golden string to seal them. The hall was grand--she had chosen it with Hadia months ago--and as she walked beneath its arches into the main hall she was pleased with her decision. It had been dimmer when they first saw it, but now it looked like the set of a movie, high ceilings and every chandelier twinkling so bright they seemed to compete with one another to illuminate the room. Men looked sharp in their dark suits and sherwanis, women dressed so that every shade of color was represented, light reflecting off of their beadwork and threadwork. Layla wished her parents had been alive to see it. How proud they would be, how happy to attend the wedding of their first grandchild. But tonight even their absence could not dull all she had to be grateful for, and beneath her breath she continued to repeat, God is Great. God is Great, and all thanks are to Him. Just an hour earlier she had helped Hadia into the heavy kharra dupatta, whispered prayers as she clasped safety pins in place. Hadia had not spoken as Layla moved about her, only thanked her once, quietly. She was nervous, as any bride would be, as Layla herself had been years ago. Layla adjusted the outfit's pleats, hooked a teekah into Hadia's hair, and stepped back to take in the sight of her daughter. All her intricate henna. Her jewelry catching light. The swoop of dark hair that peeked beneath her dupatta, that particular and deep red. Now she searched the crowd for her son. It felt unfathomable that just days ago she still had trouble sleeping when the darkness called forth her unsettling fears. In the daylight she could reassure herself that it was enough to see her son's face in the photographs she saved, hear his voice in the family videos she watched--Amar on a field trip she had chaperoned, his excitement when the zookeeper lifted up a yellow python, how his hand was the first to shoot into the air, asking to touch it. It was enough so long as she knew he was still out there, heart beating, mind moving in the way she never understood. This morning she had woken to a home complete. Before her children could rise she took out sadqa money for them, extra because it was a momentous day, then more, to protect from any comment about her son's return in a tone that could threaten its undoing. She drove to a grocery store and stocked the fridge with food Amar enjoyed: green apples and cherries, pistachio ice cream with almonds, cookies with the white cream center. All the snacks she once scolded him for. Was she cruel to feel more happiness, greater relief, at his return, than for her daughter on the day he had come back for? Before Rafiq left to oversee arrangements in the hall--the tables brought in, golden bows tied to the chairs, the setting of the stage where Hadia and Tariq would sit--Layla climbed the stairs to their bedroom, where he was getting ready. " Suno, " she said, "will you listen? Can you not say anything that will anger or upset him? She always found ways to speak around her husband's name. First it was out of shyness and then it was out of custom and a deep respect for him, and now it would be unnatural; she felt obliged to avoid his name out of habit. He paused buttoning his shirt and looked at her. It was her right. She had not interfered with his decisions for so long. She pressed on, "Please, for me, can you stay away from him tonight? We can speak tomorrow, but let us have this day." The previous night, when Amar first arrived, the two of them had been amicable. Rafiq had said salaam before Layla took over and guided Amar to his bedroom, heated him a plate of dinner. For a moment, she wondered if she had hurt Rafiq. Carefully he clasped the button at each wrist. "I will not go near him, Layla," he said finally, dropping his arms to his sides. *** When he met his father's eyes from across the crowded hall, Amar understood that an agreement had been made between them: they knew who they were there for, and why they would not approach one another beyond the expected salaam. Amar looked away first. He still felt it. His anger, and the distance it caused. It was as if something had clenched in him and could not now be loosened. Amar had played a game during the first few conversations when asked what he had been doing lately. A painter, he said to one guest, of sunsets and landscapes. The look on their faces amused him. To another uncle he said engineer but was annoyed by how it impressed him. Once he said he was pursuing an interest in ornithology. When the man blinked back at him he explained. Birds, I would like to study birds. Now he spoke without embellishment. He excused himself from conversations shortly after they began. He stepped out beneath the arched doorway, past the children playing, past the elevators, until the shenai quieted. He had forgot- ten what it was like to move through a crowd feeling like a hypocrite, aware of the scrutinizing gaze, of his father expecting Amar to embarrass him, anticipating the lie he would tell before he even spoke. He walked until he found himself standing before the bar on the other side of the hotel. Of course, no one invited to Hadia's wedding would dare come here. The sound of the shenai was so far away he could catch it only if he strained to hear. He took a seat beside two strangers. Even that felt like a betrayal. But taking a seat was not the same as ordering a drink. He leaned forward until he could rest his elbows on the counter, lowered his face into his hands and sighed. He could hardly believe that, just the night before, he had managed to walk up to the door of his childhood home and knock. What had surprised him was how little had changed--the same tint of paint at nighttime, the same screen missing from his old window on the second floor. There were no lights on. Wide windows, curtains drawn, nobody home. Nobody would know if he decided to step back into the street. It was a comforting thought--that he would not have to face his father or see how his absence had impacted his mother. The moon was almost full in the sky and as he had when he was a child, he looked first for the face his schoolteacher had said he could find there, then for the name in Arabic his mother always pointed out proudly. Finding them both, he almost smiled. He might have walked away were it not for a light turning on in Hadia's room. It glowed teal behind the curtain and the sight of it was enough to make his chest lurch. She was home. He had made his life one that did not allow him to see or speak to his sister, to even know she was getting married until she had called him a month earlier, asking him to attend. He had been so startled he didn't pick up. But he listened to her voicemail until he had memorized the details, felt sure some nights he would return and on other nights knew no good would come of it. Her lit window and his own dark beside it. One summer they had pushed out their screens and connected their rooms by a string attached to Styrofoam cups at each end. Hadia assured him she knew what she was doing. She had made one in school. He wasn't sure if he could hear her voice humming along the string and filling the cup, or carried through the air, but he didn't tell her this. They pretended a war was coming to their neighborhood. This was Hadia's idea--she had always been brilliant at thinking up games. They were in an observation tower making sure nothing was amiss. Blue bird on branch, Amar said, looking out the window before crouching down again, over. Mailman driving down the street, Hadia said, lots of letters, over. That night their father had been furious to find the screens dis- carded on the driveway, one of them bent from the fall. The three of them were made to stand in a line. Hadia, the eldest, then Huda, then Amar, the youngest, hiding a little behind them both. "You instigated this?" his father said, looking only at him. It was true. It had been his idea to push out the screens. Hadia stared at the floor. Huda nodded. Hadia glanced at her but said nothing. His father said to his sisters, "I expected better from you two." Amar had sulked to his bedroom, closed his open window, sunk onto his cold sheets. Nothing was expected from him. And though Hadia never pushed her screen out again, he had, every few years, until his father gave up on repairing it entirely. "Have you changed your mind?" the bartender asked him. Amar looked up and shook his head. It wouldn't have been so bad to say yes. It might have even been better for him and everyone else. A drink would calm his nerves, and maybe he could enjoy the colors and the appetizers and the sorrowful shenai. But he had come home for his mother's sake, his sister's sake, and this night was the only one asked of him. His phone buzzed. It was Huda: Hadia is asking for you, room 310. All day he had feared his sister might have only called him out of obligation, and suspected that maybe it was that same sense of duty that had brought him back. Now something swelled up in him, not quite excitement or happiness, but a kind of hope. He stood and stepped back toward the music. His sister, surrounded by close friends and family, was asking for him. Excerpted from A Place for Us: A Novel by Fatima Farheen Mirza All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
New York Times Review
|THERE ARE TWO KINDS of belonging in Fatima Farheen Mirza's debut novel, "A Place for Us," the first title published under Sarah Jessica Parker's brand-new imprint at Hogarth, and they are often mutually exclusive. There is the more conspicuous story about Rafiq and Layla - a Muslim- Indian immigrant couple in California - and their children Hadia, Huda and Amar, who seek over decades to reconcile their non-Western values and customs with those of 21st-century suburban America. But woven throughout this arc is a micronarrative of a young man coming of age within that family and struggling to find his own "place" within it. Mirza's attempt to nestle the more intimate tale within the broader societal one is ambitious. The result is a family epic that is textured and keenly felt, if at times meandering. The opening scene takes place at Hadia's wedding, where she eagerly anticipates a reunion with her estranged brother, Amar. From there the narrative catapults among time periods - from the parents' courtship in India, to various stages of the children's upbringing, to later in their adulthood when Hadia is a physician on the team that is treating her father's brain tumor - and perspectives, alternating the viewpoints of Hadia, Amar and Layla, sometimes within a single chapter. (Rafiq's testimony in the final section feels both tacked on and overly sentimental, and the reader is leftwondering why poor Huda, the middle child, is the only one elided from the text altogether.) Mirza's chosen structure feels well suited to what may likely end up a film adaptation, but as a reader I found these leaps distracted from the otherwise convincing pathos of her characters' emotional and moral plights. Indeed these plights and the themes they belie are often just as varied and frenetically sketched as the novel's architecture. If Amar's alienation can be identified as the book's central tension (and given all the competing tensions, I am not 100 percent sure that it can), then the reasons behind it, the context that made it so, are muddied by the way Mirza eschews traditional plot development. Instead we are ushered from one wildly disparate world to the next, from nostalgic reminiscences - the novel takes its title from a bittersweet reverie of a riverside picnic that was the request of a young Amar, to which Rafiq replies, "We can try . . . I might know a place for us" - to the nature and nuances of heritage, inheritance and familial bonds as well as the harsh realities of post-Sept. 11 xenophobia. Following the 2001 terrorist attacks, the family quickly learns that "the hijackers were Saudi, that their names were the same names that belonged to people in their community." Rafiq instructs the girls not to wear their hijabs to school the following day: "We don't know how people will react," he explains. "We don't know where they will direct their anger if they are afraid." This idea of the unknowable limits to which humankind will go in the name of fear marks one of the novel's most poignant threads, one that would have benefited from a more sustained, linear narrative treatment. For all the novel's deliberate disorder, however, one motif seems to underpin every action and thought of these characters both as a family unit and as individuals: the imaginary "black mark" that Layla tells her children appears on the hearts of all who act contrary to the will of God. The metaphor helps to organize the scattered dilemmas Mirza's characters experience, and it is as ironic as it is profound. To a family so preoccupied with the dichotomy of good vs. evil, halal vs. haram, it gradually becomes clear that such a line is, of course, impossible to draw with the kind of permanence that "black mark" suggests. As Amar reflects on his fraught relationships with both his father and organized religion, he comes to new understandings of faith and of goodness that have stuck with me long after I finished the book's final page. Amar "could not claim to know God existed with any certainty," but even if he "said to himself he did not believe, still his mouth opened to respond to the call." Mirza draws Amar's lifelong struggle with the concept of unconditional devotion so poignantly that readers will find it exceedingly relatable. But so too is that mysterious whisper in his ear urging him always to return, no matter how far he strays, back home. 0 LAUREN CHRISTENSEN is an editor at the Book Review.|
Publishers Weekly Review
|Bonds of faith and family strengthen and strangle in this promising but flawed debut, set in a close-knit Indian Muslim community in California. The story opens with the wedding of Hadia, golden child of Layla and Rafiq and older sister to Huda and Amar, skillfully setting up the central tension: why has Amar, the troubled youngest, been absent from the family, and can he be drawn back? The plot then shuffles backward and forward, revisiting plot points with few signposts to let the reader know when exactly key events-an untimely death, the snuffing out of a forbidden relationship, a family-rupturing fight-take place. Perspective alights on various characters, revealing more about some than others; middle child Huda remains nearly opaque, and early references to Rafiq's violent temper are all but dropped. For the final 80 pages, Rafiq narrates, and the story at last coheres. He delivers a heartrending reflection on his role in his son's partly self-imposed banishment: "It is in these moments that the fabric of my life reveals itself to be an illusion: thinking that I am fine, we all are, that we could grow around your loss like a tree that bends around a barrier or wound." Mirza displays a particular talent for rendering her characters' innermost emotional lives, signaling a writer to watch. (June) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.|
School Library Journal Review
|Layla and Rafiq are traditional Muslim Indians. After their arranged marriage in Hyderabad, young Layla joins Rafiq in northern California, where they immerse themselves in their mosque and its community and start their family. They do their utmost to raise their children in strict adherence to their faith. Mirza writes eloquently about the parents' choices and their children's subsequent struggles to straddle two cultures and assimilate. Daughters Hadia and Huda navigate life with Islamic constrictions much more successfully than their younger brother Amar. For Amar, there are too many contradictions, and from early childhood, he questions and rebels. In turn, his parents ramp up their restrictions and their disapproval, creating a downward spiral for Amar as the family is slowly but surely torn apart by cultural conflicts and misunderstandings. Teen readers will appreciate Hadia and Huda and will empathize, commiserate, and identify with the beleaguered Amar. Written alternately from each character's perspective, the narrative moves back and forth in time (sometimes confusingly), with Hadia's wedding the anchoring event. The writing is delicate, evocative, and intense but accessible. VERDICT Teens who enjoy powerful family dramas such as Mitali Perkins's You Bring the Distant Near and rebellion stories like Erika L. Sanchez's I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter will love this gripping and bittersweet tale.-Gretchen Crowley, formerly at Alexandria City Public Libraries, VA © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.|