This one has been on my TBR for a little while now. I’ve seen great reviews and had it personally recommended, but of course (as things go) it took something else to tip the scale for me. That tip came when it won this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. I knew I couldn’t put it off any longer. Especially since last year’s winner, The Power by Naomi Alderman, was one of my favorite reads of the past year.
“The ones we love…are enemies of the state.” – Sophocles, Antigone
This is, primarily, the story of the Pasha family: Isma and her younger twin siblings, Parvaiz and Aneeka. But it’s also about another family, that of Eamonn, and how they become inextricably intertwined. The Pasha’s father was a known extremist jihadist, and that history impacts them each in a different way. After their mother’s death, Isma is surprised and thrilled to learn that she is approved to travel from England to the US to study for her PhD, even though it means leaving her little sister alone (truly alone, because their brother “abandoned” them both to chase dreams of a missing father a year before.) During her time in New England, Isma meets Eamonn, which sets in motion an unexpected journey for him – meeting and developing a relationship with her sister Aneeka that leads him to question much of what his father, a rising political figure, has taught and represented for years. At the same time, Aneeka begins her relationship with Eamonn…with very different goals than where it ends up. And simultaneously, Parvaiz travels his own path of self-discovery and disillusion that proves a greater risk than he had anticipated.
“…only the older sister’s steady heartbeat could teach the younger one’s frantic heart how to quiet, until there was no sound except their breath in unison, the universe still around them.”
Let me just start by saying that this book lived up to the hype. First, I had no idea that it was a contemporary retelling of the classic play Antigone. I’m actually glad that I didn’t know, because it allowed me to enter the story with no expectations (plot-wise) and gave me the chance to be emotionally blind-sided where necessary (which, although it was harder to read that way, definitely allowed the story to pack a greater punch). But looking back, seeing that the book is told in five sections, with five different narrators and in five different locations, reminiscent of the five acts of the original play, adds a lot of depth to the style and development of the story. This change of POV and location also allowed for an unveiling (unraveling?) of the plot and characters’ lives in a beautifully paced fashion. Showing us major events in each characters’ life through both their own eyes and the eyes of those close to them was a full-dimensional and fascinating way to create depth for each of them. I also really liked that they each got one say, one moment, and then we never got to come back to them, so you had to extrapolate their feelings and emotions based on what you learned from being in their mind earlier, and of course from their fellow characters’ POVs, which was very immersing. Overall, the writing was just so lovely and expressive. Throughout the book, as it changes for each character, and the tone and inflection change along with it, the writing keeps up perfectly without managing to lose any of it’s flow or sensitivity.
“…grief was bad-tempered, grief was kind; grief saw nothing but itself, grief saw every speck of pain in the world; grief spread its wings large like an eagle, grief huddled small like a porcupine; grief needed company, grief craved solitude; grief wanted to remember, wanted to forget; grief raged, grief whimpered; grief made time compress and contract; grief tasted like hunger, felt like numbness, sounded like silence; grief tasted like bile, felt like blades, sounded like all the noise of the world. Grief was a shape-shifter, and invisible too; grief could be captured as reflection in a twin’s eye. Grief heard its death sentence the morning you both woke up and one was singing and the other caught the song.”
I don’t want to give any spoilers, because the emotional hit is what makes this story great. But I do want to share a few main thoughts/reactions. First, Parvaiz is just such a sad character. Denied a real father (both physically, by his father’s death, and emotionally, by his family’s refusal to acknowledge or talk about the man), he wants nothing more than a paternal figure in his life. That vulnerability allows him to be taken advantage of to an extent that makes your heart cry. And the ramifications for himself and his family, his twin, are so great…and special to people of his circumstances (meaning that this book highlights the way that people of color cannot make youthful growth/error in the same way that others can, because they are given so much less leeway and their consequences are so much greater). To that end, and not to coopt a movement (but just to give you an idea of the theme-ing) I feel like that book is like an Islamic take on #blacklivesmatter – showing the differences in interpretations of actions and decisions that come with being part of a “feared” minority community (how much harsher and unforgiving judgements are, along with the extremes to which people go to avoid being “lumped in” with the “bad” elements of your “people” – *cough* Eamonn’s father, which is sad in a complete different way.) However, no matter how sad Parvaiz’s story is or how hard-hitting Aneeka’s pain is or how depressing the choices Eamonn’s father thinks he must make are, my heart belongs to Isma here. Her story – what she loses and how she loses it, over and over, is the real tragedy of this book of tragedies. She is sort of the “unsung hero” in this way, but not in a way you’d ever want to be. Oh my soul. And last, THAT ENDING. Holy goodness I didn’t see it coming at all and it hit like an ton of emotional bricks. It’s so poignantly profound and heart-wrenchingly painful at the same time. I can’t even find the words for it. Just…UGH.
“Everything else you can live around, but not death. Death you have to live through.”
I actually, because life, finished this book over two weeks ago and am just now getting around to writing the review. (I say that to cover myself in case I am not able to expertly craft my feelings in this review the way that I normally can. Just go with that self-pat-on-the-shoulder – sorry not sorry). But bottom line, I loved it. It was a beautiful exploration of a family (families) struggling to find their meaning in a world that doesn’t always (doesn’t often) accept them at face value. And it hits all the misfortune buttons (pain, grief, loss, abandonment, heartache) in a way that is horrifyingly believable and incredibly timely. Just a wonderful page-turning work of tragic contemporary literary fiction.