By Ekta R. Garg
November 7, 2018
Genre: Literary fiction
Release date: June 12, 2018
Rated: Bordering on Bookmarking it / 3.5 stars
A brother comes home for his older sister’s wedding after years of estrangement from his family. As the festivities progress, everyone reflects on the causes of the rift and how they might have saved themselves from heartache. Debut author Fatima Farheen Mirza offers her readers prose with heft and a story of love and family in the mostly satisfying novel A Place for Us.
In sunny California, on the night of her wedding, Hadia worries about her younger brother, Amar. Despite him being the baby of the family and the beloved son, no one else wanted Amar to come. Of course, they never stated it outright, but Hadia knows her family like she knows her own heartbeat. Amar deserted all of them three years earlier. He ran away without an explanation. What right does he have to stroll back into their lives?
As Hadia battles her nerves, her parents, Layla and Rafiq, do what they can to act as gracious hosts. Layla’s constant companion is the fear that Rafiq will dress Amar down in front of everyone, however, and no matter how many people she greets with a smile and a “thank you” her fear doesn’t seem to ebb. Raising Amar proved difficult enough; managing him for one evening might be more than she can bear.
The family wants to maintain their composure, but the evening brings back memories for all of them. Some good; others bad. All heavy with the realization of how the family has changed since Amar’s desertion. Hadia and Amar both reflect on the exacting demands of their father, how Rafiq monitored each action and word against the high standards of Islam. Layla wants to reach out to Amar and beg him to move back home. She doesn’t know where her son lives now or how he supports himself, but she’s willing to forgive anything if he just comes back to them.
Amar waffles between his own identity and his family. They took something precious from him. Never mind that he knows he may not have deserved it. But ever since that time, he’s been adrift and he doesn’t think he can drop anchor any time soon. The temptation to do so gets stronger throughout the night, however, and by the end of it he’ll have to decide whether it’s more important to forgive and forget or forget and move on.
Author Fatima Farheen Mirza draws readers into her story world with prose reminiscent of the work of Jhumpa Lahiri—elegant, careful, measured. She doesn’t dress up her narrative but lets it carry the story. At one point during the wedding, during a conversation between Amar and Layla, Amar pauses to reflect on how his mother has just responded:
“He felt at the edge of discomfort, made worse by how desperately [Layla] was trying to protect him from discomfort. He could lean into the feeling as it advanced toward him or he could deny it and remain present.”
True to its genre, most of the book focuses on the personal reflections of the characters; what they thought, what they felt, and how they interacted with one another dominates the story. Throughout the novel Mirza succeeds in creating a photo album with words where readers encounter snapshots of different situations in the characters’ lives. Despite the fact that these snapshots don’t follow a chronological order, readers will have absolutely no trouble at all following the events that bring Layla and Rafiq’s family to their present state at the wedding.
In the current political climate, when so many are willing to denounce a particular faith, Mirza shares the positives of her characters’ religion and gives them the dignity of being what most people are: a family just trying to do its best. Rafiq is no radical or extremist; he’s a man trying to pass down his heritage and his belief system to his children. In some cases he’s successful, which reassures him that he’s done right by his family and his faith. In other instances, he fails in spectacular fashion and the failure drives him deep into sorrow.
Less successful is the explanation for the actual cause of Amar’s desertion. One main reason is offered, but Amar suffers from enough issues that readers will spend time guessing others. This minor weakness in the plotting may surprise readers, given Mirza’s otherwise astute observations of her characters and their dilemmas.
For the most part, however, readers curious about another culture or faith will find A Place for Us enlightening, which leads me to rate the book as Bordering on Bookmarking it.