Shamsie's second novel (In the City by the Sea, 1998, not reviewed) concerns the impact of caste, history, family lore, and globalization on a college-age Pakistani woman studying in the States.
School's out, so narrator Aliya Dard-e-dil, a master’s candidate in education at an American university, flies home to Karachi via London. On the UK leg of the flight, her family stories attract the attention of Khaleel Butt, a westernized Pakistani. Once in London, their second chance encounter occurs, generating the story’s only real present-action question: Will Aliya be able to transcend caste distinctions and love the lower-born Khaleel? Members of Aliya's extended family living in London fill her in on what to expect this summer in Karachi, and soon Aliya is off to that city, the novel's final destination. It’s here, in a succession of tête-à-têtes with family members, that the mysteries and animosities that haunt the Dard-e-Dils, an aristocratic clan, all resolve. Among them is Aliya's dissing of a family matriarch called Dadi, which stemmed from the disappearance of Aliya's "not-quite" twin, Aunt Mariam, with Masood, the cook. Revelations surrounding these past events lead Aliya to confront her own class prejudices, finally accepting Khaleel despite his own family's address in Karachi. The novel’s technically flawed: scenes are informational, not dramatic, and are derived from American sitcoms, with endless tongue-in-cheek quipping; the narrator, meanwhile, is in love with her wit, indulging a disastrous predilection for the cute. Apostrophes appear at random, and the occasional invocations of significant poets (John Ashbery, T.S. Eliot) are misleading: the language is pedestrian. An abundance of the novel's abundant back story is reported, often in speechy dialogue. Predictable, sentimental coincidence resolves all of the tale's barley niggling questions.
The issue underlying this story is compelling: the tug of tradition on the global soul. Sadly, Shamsie gives us little reason to keep turning the pages. Little, if anything, is at stake for its protagonist.