The pangs of individuals and cultures subject to established inequality and radical change are expertly analyzed in Pakistani author Mueenuddin’s impressive debut collection.
The eight stories explore relationships among scions of the super-rich Harouni farming family, living near Lahore—those who serve it and those who marry (often unhappily) into it. The stories are Chekhovian in their grasp of indigenous detail and subtle understanding of their characters’ complex experiences and destinies. In “Nawabdin Electrician” (one of two stories that previously appeared in the New Yorker), a resourceful Mr. Fixit, who’s also the overburdened father of several marriageable daughters, patches together a living from his genius for mechanical improvisation, suffers grievous losses when he’s robbed and beaten, yet, through sheer force of will, perseveres. Echoes of Irish storyteller Frank O’Connor’s keen eye for quotidian minutiae and Doris Lessing’s fatalistic irony are sounded in the title story’s understated portrayal of an indigent woman who “rises” to security as mistress to the elderly Harouni patriarch, but, upon his death, loses all she has gained; the tale of a judge’s servant whose family turns an act of horrific abuse to its profit (“About a Burning Girl”); and a harrowing story (“A Spoiled Man”) about an aging workman whose painstakingly earned chance at happiness is ruined by a do-gooder’s misunderstanding of the traditions that fix him irrevocably in his place. Even better are the longer stories: In “Lily,” the chronicle of a vain party girl’s ingenuous hope of reclaiming respectability, as the wife of an industrious wealthy farmer’s son, is dashed as their utter incompatibility uncoils and shows itself; and the magnificent “Provide, Provide,” wherein the ambitious Zainab insinuates herself among the Harounis, abandoning her weakling husband to marry a well-placed household servant, only to lose everything when the force of family obligation shoulders aside all her scheming.
Superlative stories from an accomplished stylist who looks as if he may well have a great novel in him.