A dysfunctional family mirrors a dysfunctional nation in Sethi’s unfocused debut.
The novel ends where it begins, with Zaki Shirazi arriving in Lahore, Pakistan, for the wedding of his cousin Samar Api some years after 9/11. Now a college student in Massachusetts, Zaki grew up with Samar, who was his closest childhood companion. They lived in his grandmother’s house in Lahore. Daadi, a forceful old woman, agreed with her younger sister Chhoti, Samar’s mother, that the little girl was better off in the city than in the repressive, conservative village of Chhoti’s old-fashioned husband. As for Zaki, “I had been given to Daadi as compensation for the death of her son,” he tells us. His father, a Pakistani air force pilot, died in a flying accident before his birth, and his mother is a devoted journalist but a negligent parent. We seem to be headed for a coming-of-age story about Zaki, or perhaps Samar, but their narratives have many gaps, and a big chunk of the novel concerns Zaki’s mother, who also lives on sufferance in Daadi’s house. Zakia—her husband wanted the boy named after her—is the most interesting character. A progressive, cutting-edge reporter focusing on the subjugation of women (the novel’s half-buried theme), she’s a supporter of Benazir Bhutto but becomes disillusioned when Bhutto achieves power. Sethi’s unenlightening references to the volatile world of Pakistan’s politics—hardly more sophisticated than, “today democracy, tomorrow martial law”—are jarringly juxtaposed with the soap-opera story of a teenage confidante who steals Samar’s boyfriend. Zaki performs acts of vandalism to get his mother’s attention; Samar is punished for her alleged loose living and returned to her father’s feudal homeland. But Sethi muffles the drama inherent in his characters’ troubled lives: Samar’s exile is reported after the fact, and when Zaki is involved in the school fight of his life, the circumstances are as murky as the author’s prose.
Commendably ambitious, but this young Pakistani author has bitten off more than he can chew.