The first novel in English from one of the most important writers in Urdu, an Indian-born author (The Weary Generations, 1999) virtually unknown in the West. That should change.
The story is narrated alternately by Amir, an illegal immigrant in Birmingham, and by his teenaged daughter Parvin, who, having come to England at five, is struggling between the traditional expectations of her father and her desire to enter into the life of her adopted country. Adding drama are the time-shifts between Amir’s first coming to Birmingham and the present, when he is a legal homeowner but nevertheless engaged in a running battle with his wife and children, who have little idea of his struggles to give them a new and better life. It’s a conflict that brings to mind such writers as Henry Roth and Roth’s vivid images of the Lower East Side, as well as V.S. Naipaul with his tales of Indian immigrants in the Caribbean. But, while Abdullah does not suffer from such comparisons, his novel is unique in its depiction of a particular kind of suffering in what most of us consider a civilized country. Unforgettable, for example, is Amir’s memory of living in a house with eight other Pakistanis and his description of their absolute terror at being discovered by the authorities. One of the men finds a lover named Mary, who gets pregnant and later becomes the catalyst for a violent struggle that will break up the group home and force Amir and the others out on their own. After much difficulty, Amir becomes a British citizen, gets a job at the post office, and buys his own home. His dreams are realized, yet he doesn’t do nearly so well with his wife, daughter or son, all in different ways rejecting their father and the life he has chosen for them.
The symbolism of Mary and child coming to liberate the immigrants may be heavy-handed, and occasionally Hussein’s language can be awkward. But altogether Émigré Journeys is a remarkable performance.