So, this is is a little bit of a slant, but this was the book I chose to read for the September Just One More Pa(i)ge Reading Challenge. The prompt was to read a book by an immigrant or refugee, in recognition of Constitution and Citizenship Day on Sept 17th. Now technically Mirza herself is not an immigrant or refugee, but one of her parents is, and the book is about a family in which the parents are immigrants and the children are first generation American. So, since it’s my own challenge, I’m going to rule to allow it. Haha. But seriously, I’ve been wanting to read this since it got tons of positive reviews as a debut last year. And I took this chance to finally pick it up.
As I already alluded to, this is the story of a family. It opens at Hadia’s wedding, the oldest child, who, though she has always done everything to meet her parents’ expectations, is celebrating a love match marriage with a man who is not of the same Islamic sect. Hadia invited her younger brother, Amar, to the wedding…and he came, despite years of estrangement, because he’d been close to Hadia in their youth. Also present is Huda, the middle child, attempting to move everything forward smoothly amongst the family members. And last, we have Layla and Rafiq, trying to hold onto this one night with all their children finally back in one place together. As the night progresses, Mirza moves back and forth in time to show us the way the family’s paths unfolded over the years, the actions and interactions that lead to this evening, this moment in time, and how it has and will affect their lives for years to come.
This was a phenomenally emotional and profound exploration of a family – the juxtaposition of cultural and familial expectations with being exposed to the different cultures and expectations of a new country and the way that affects each child, each member of the family, differently was done with such genuineness and rawness. To take this a slight step further, the specific way that religion affects each is developed with both an impartial perception and a tender understanding, and it’s woven smoothly into every part of the narrative in a way that is both omnipresent and yet not overstated. I feel like I really learned a lot about the role of religion in this context, an immigrant/first generation Muslim family, and the insight is something that I really appreciate. And just…the way that religion and the religious and cultural expectations differently affected each family member, in ways that are so unique to themselves and foreign to each other, yet all stemming from the same source, was really fascinating and so well written.
Another aspect of this novel that I just loved, actually perhaps the part I loved the most, was the way the relationships amongst the siblings were written. It felt so truthful and authentic in the ways they both support and minimize each other, and, as the oldest daughter of three kids, I felt like I recognized so much. So much about Hadia’s motivations and actions and personality are an exact match for mine. And her relationship with the youngest, her brother Amar, is one that spoke deeply to my heart (taking into account their closeness, what she would do for/forgive in him and, very on point to the main “drama” of the novel, the mental health and substance use issues he faces and the role she plays for her family there). Seriously, there were a few moments while reading this novel that I had to take a short break and do some breathing exercises – I cannot think of another book I’ve read that was this familiar to me. And I think that speaks so strongly to the universality of humanity and the human experience, as opposed to the self-imposed divisions we place on ourselves from race and religion and sexuality and whatever else we can think of to separate ourselves out. And this carried over into the experiences and feelings of the parents, which is obviously not my personal experience/viewpoint, but in reading the last section, from Rafiq’s POV, I really found myself opening up in understanding to his perspective, much more than I expected I would. And truly, I ended this book in tears. It was Just. That. Affecting.
At base, this book is a portrait: a heart-rending portrayal of a family, of faith, of miscommunicated beliefs and expectations and the moments lost that are unrecognized until its too late. And it’s a profound look at how, no matter the situation, there are so many sides/factors that there is never one moment that could have changed the outcome, yet despite the shared grief at the outcome(s), the blame is always silently, personally felt/borne. There was so much emotion in me throughout this novel. My feelings around the opportunities and relationships lost and broken beyond repair, even with shared regret and wish to overcome, were just so heavy. I completely agree with all the amazing reviews this debut garnered. It was full of grace, compassion and gorgeous sorrow – truly wonderful.
There were a number of important/beautiful passages that stuck out to me while reading. Enjoy this selection:
“To know you is to want to let you in.”
“…there was no real way to quantify the goodness of a person – that religion gave templates and guidelines but there were ways it missed the mark entirely.”
“What was it about an apology that was so difficult? It always felt like it cost something personal and precious. Only now that she was a mother was she so aware of this: the stubbornness and pride that came with being human, the desire to be loyal and generous that came too, each impulse at odds with the other.”
“Back then, Layla remembered thinking that humiliation was a deeper wound than heartache. She had wanted to protect them all from it. Now, […] she knew better. Knew that it did not matter what anyone thought if her own heart was not at peace. Only after her worst fears were confirmed did she realize there had been no use in letting her fears determine her decisions. She was finally free of them.”
“But I did fight. I tried to leave every human I have interacted with better than or the same as when I encountered them….It was the way I wanted to move through the world….That was my fight: to continue to do little things for people around me, so no one would find fault in my demeanor and mis-attribute it to my religion.”
“Her reflection. Her tired face. She touches her dry bottom lip and thinks of how odd it is to experience a secret loss. A loss without a name. The loss of a potential version of her life. Of what she never had, and now never will.”