A young girl straddles two cultures in 1970s Pakistan.
Aliya Shah is 11 years old. Her mother is Dutch, her father is Pakistani, and when Aliya was 5, her family moved from Europe to Islamabad, where her father now works for the country’s Water and Power Development Authority. Aliya goes to an American school with the children of diplomats and, presumably, spies. Her best friend is a blonde girl named Lizzy. Aliya exists between worlds; with her brown skin, she’s clearly set apart from her schoolmates, but at home, she can’t speak Urdu with Sadiq, the family’s servant. One night, Sadiq’s young son is hit and killed by a car, which then drives off. Over the next year, Aliya gradually begins to piece together what happened in the crash, including the identity of the driver. All of this is set against a complicated political background: it’s the 1970s; Bhutto has been deposed, and Gen. Zia has assumed leadership. Then, too, the hostage crisis in Iran, in which 52 Americans were held for 444 days, has taken over the news: suspicion of and resentment toward Americans, for their interference in the Middle East, is at a premium. Khan (Five Queen’s Road, 2009, etc.) writes with a lovely elegance; both her characters and the world they inhabit come vibrantly alive. Unfortunately, she has an occasional tendency to overexplain themes already implicit in the narrative. Her treatment of race, class, and American imperialism can feel heavy-handed in places. Still, overall the novel is a moving success and necessary at a time when many of the same concerns have come to dominate our national (and international) consciousness.
Despite occasional heavy-handedness, Khan’s third novel is a complex and moving examination of, among other things, American imperialism through the eyes of a young girl.