Two Pakistani women have their friendship challenged by sectarian division, violence, and sexism in this debut novel.
Brash, outgoing Nadira and shy, dutiful Hameeda are opposites, but the two Lahore schoolgirls become fast friends. Religious differences—Nadira’s family is Sunni, Hameeda’s Shiite—intrude when a Sunni mob attacks a Shiite procession, killing Hameeda’s grandfather. Her pious father commands her never to see Nadira again, an abrupt rupture that leaves the girls feeling wounded, guilty, and lonely. They grow up and embrace similar roles as upper-middle-class housewives, which chafe them in different ways: the smart, ambitious Nadira feels ignored and marginalized by her increasingly brusque husband, while the more conventional and religious Hameeda remains plagued by her querulous, live-in mother-in-law. The two housewives’ sheltered—and confining—lives are gradually intruded upon by the growing turmoil of Sunni-Shiite violence, Islamic extremism, and terrorist outrages in Pakistan, until a shocking crime forces both women to take stock, try new paths, and rekindle their long-lost friendship. Much of Rashid’s novel is a subtle portrait of domestic life, as Narida and Hameeda oversee their households, ride herd on kids, negotiate with parents and husbands, and come to terms with disappointments and constraints. Their perceptions are shaped in complex, sometimes surprising ways by changes in Pakistani society: Nadira is empowered by new opportunities for women to get an education but frustrated when her career prospects remain limited; Hameeda finds that wearing an all-enclosing burqa in public makes her feel confident and safe. Writing in a limpid prose style, Rashid depicts her vivid characters and their society with nuance and sensitivity, setting them against a colorful tapestry of local culture, including a dazzling wedding set piece. In this quietly affecting novel, Nadira and Hameeda are believable and appealing protagonists, and readers should find their life choices and predicaments both exotic and familiar.
An absorbing tale of Muslim women taking their destinies into their own hands.