Unmarriageable, by Soniah Kamal

It is a truth universally acknowledged that some stories are so good that no one can resist retelling them. Pride and Prejudice is one such. There are so many retellings of this novel that the field is flooded. Only the truly unique retellings, like Soniah Kamal’s Pakistani version, Unmarriageble, stand out enough to catch the eye. But I am a little disappointed to report that, apart from relocating the classic tale to an unfashionable down in Pakistan around the turn of the twenty-first century, Unmarriageable is faithful to the original beat for beat. I had been hoping for a little more coloring outside of the lines. Readers who want to see Pride and Prejudice play out in a new location will be delighted, I think. 

Alysbet Binat teaches English at the British School of Dilipabad. At the age of 31, her mother despairs of her ever getting married. Alys’s older sister, Jena, and her younger sisters are all somewhat “unmarriageable” to the keen eyes of the local marriage market. Jena is too old. Alys is too old and too headstrong. Mari is so devout it puts people off. Qitty is overweight. And Lady is a hellion. Mrs. Binat’s hysteria grows over the course of the novel as her daughters keep “ruining” their chances of getting married. There are times when Mrs. Binat and Lady’s fat-shaming of Qitty was bad enough that I considered putting a trigger warning on this post. 

Unmarriageable follows the same plot arcs as Pride and Prejudice closely enough that I’m not going to summarize the novel. I’d rather focus on what’s different. Unmarriageable is full of wonderful meals that made me long for a Pakistani restaurant so that I could zoom out and try all the amazing things the Binats were eating. I also had a great time working out who was who from the original story. (The Pakistani versions of the names aren’t too hard to puzzle out.) The text is also liberally sprinkled with Urdu, followed by helpful but unobtrusive translations, to help transport us readers. That said, I wish that Kamal had devoted a little more time to describing the places Alys et al. visit. With the exception of a border closing ceremony at Wagah-Attari, the places the characters visit are simply listed. Curious readers will have to head to Wikipedia to learn more. 

There were plenty of places where Unmarriageable made me uncomfortable. There were several times when I wanted to barge into the story to slap Lady and Mrs. Binat because they are truly awful at times in how they treated Qitty or harped on about the high-risk Pakistani marriage market. But once the novel had progressed past Lady’s elopement and Alys and Darsee started to sort their problems out, I felt the familiar comfort of Pride and Prejudice shine through. Kamal also provides an epilogue that catches us up with all the characters a year later. The epilogue has enough happy updates that I felt much better about the book overall.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

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