In Haji’s debut novel, an Indo-Pakistani Muslim tries to balance her family’s traditional values and her independent nature.
As the story begins, adult Saira suffers a nightmare in which “twin plumes of smoke rise” above a destroyed city and a woman is shot to death. Awake, Saira remembers growing up in California with her older sister Ameena and their moderately conservative Muslim parents. Ameena is the beauty, Saira the brains. In 1983, 14-year-old Saira makes a life-changing trip to Pakistan to attend a family wedding alone because her mother and sister refuse to attend. On the way to Pakistan she learns her mother’s family secret: Saira’s grandfather left Saira’s beautiful but unsophisticated grandmother, with whom he had an arranged marriage, for a young British woman, his soul mate with whom he had three children. On her way home from Pakistan, Saira stays in London with her paternal uncle’s family and learns another secret from her cousin Mohsin—their paternal grandfather’s idealistic devotion to Gandhi caused him to neglect his family. Back in California, while Ameena happily agrees to an arranged marriage, Saira becomes a mildly rebellious teen, appearing in a play without her parents’ knowledge. Then she goes to college, where she experiments with drinking, drugs and sex, including having a brief affair with a visiting journalist/scholar. After a break with her family that Haji, herself an Indo-Pakistani, coyly avoids explaining, Saira begins traveling the world as a journalist with now openly gay Mohsin, a photographer. She reunites with her family when her mother is dying. Ameena, who has become seriously devout, is happily married with an adorable daughter. Saira takes her widowed father back to India, where he remarries and begins to work at the clinic his father founded years earlier. After Ameena, who has begun to wear a hijab, is shot to death in the aftermath of 9/11, Saira rushes home to sort out her priorities.
A welcome glimpse into a much-misunderstood culture suffers from newcomer Haji’s tendencies toward long-winded religious/philosophic musing.