House Number 12 Block Number 3, by Sana Balagamwala

Trigger warning for references to child abuse.

We have an expression about wanting to be a fly on the wall so that we can eavesdrop on others. But what if you could be the wall? In House Number 12 Block Number 3, by Sana Balagamwala, the house itself tells the story after hearing all kinds of conversations over decades. The price of this gift, however, is that no one can hear the house when it really wants to spill secrets and shout warnings to the family it shelters within its walls.

We meet the family six months after the death of the patriarch. Zainab, the widow, is struggling between grief and moving on. Junaid, the son is ready to move on, literally, and wants the family to sell the house. Nadia, the favored daughter, is prostrate. She rarely leaves the room and never leaves the house. She barely eats. She doesn’t want to wash. Her mother has brought in doctors and healers to figure out what’s wrong; they diagnose everything from depression to possession by a jinn. The house knows what’s wrong, but it can’t speak to tell them what’s really wrong with Nadia.

House Number 12 Block Number 3 moves back and forth from the early 1980s back to the late-1950s, the 1960s, and the 1970s. We watch Nadia grow up under her father’s indulgent eye and her mother’s worried one. When Nadia is a little girl, her uncle comes to visit and she is never the same again. The house knows—and we know, because of the house—what happened even though we (thankfully) never get the actual details.

This novel isn’t the usual story of triumph over abuse or about forgiveness or even really about healing. Instead, it’s a story about how secrets can never stay hidden, even if propriety really wants them to stay buried. The truth will out, to repeat another common saying. Because of its cathartic conclusion and Balagamwala deft touch with the details, House Number 12 Block 3 turned out to be a surprisingly satisfying read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack, by H.M. Naqvi

Abdullah is a gentleman and a scholar. Unfortunately, no one in his family seems to recognize his talents and it’s hard to fund his lifestyle on the income from a small garment dyeing company (after it’s been skimmed by the manager). All Abdullah has is his stake in the family house, his books, his carefully cultivated habits, and a ragtag pack of friends who have seen better days. In The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack, by H.M. Naqvi, we witness the great man’s last stand against incivility and the passing of an age.

Abdullah is a man after my own heart. He is endlessly curious about everything but struggles to finish anything. There’s just so much to know! His rooms are filled with books and notes for all the monographs he intends to write, but hasn’t quite gotten around to writing. He also battles diabetes, gout, and a persistent family that wants him to sell The Lodge—the ancestral pile in Karachi, Pakistan. Oh, and an old friend has pawned off a grandson on Abdullah to teach him character and the Classics. It’s a lot for a seventy-something year old man.

The novel is littered with footnotes as Abdullah lurches around The Lodge and Karachi. These footnotes range all over the intellectual map, offering histories of Pakistan, jazz, Islam, Abdullah’s legal and romantic woes, food, poetry, and much more. (There is also a helpful glossary of words from Urdu and other languages spoken in southern Pakistan at the end.) I love footnotes! Especially ones that add sardonic and arch notes to what quickly becomes a picaresque folly as Abdullah tries to hold on to The Lodge.

I really liked The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack. For all that he is not the easiest person to get along with and would probably bore the pants off me if he ever managed to corner me for a lecture, I enjoyed riding along on his shoulder around Karachi. Abdullah reminds me of Count Alexander Rostov, of A Gentleman in Moscow, because of the way he attempts to live in the past as much as possible as the world hurtles along around him. Abdullah even insists on using archaic spellings of places in Pakistan; Karachi is constantly spelled Currachee and it took me a bit of Googling to figure out where and when this book takes place. Once I got the hang of Abdullah’s style, I felt like I had an inside glimpse of a lost version of Pakistan that lived between the Partition and the rise of militant dictators.

Readers who like quirky, gentle men at odds with the times; humor mixed with a dash of tristesse; and heavy use of footnotes will find much to enjoy in The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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.

An Unrestored Woman, by Shobha Rao

In An Unrestored Woman, Shobha Rao tells a series of stories about characters that brush each others’ lives over the course of a century. Not only do characters from various stories meet, the plots share themes of love and betrayal, revenge and violence. The various stories, taken as a whole, offer different perspectives on what people are willing to do to each other to try and find their own happiness—and the prices they have to pay for their manipulations.

Some of the standout stories include:

“The Imperial Police” – Though several other stories feature downtrodden and abused women, this story struck me as the saddest one in the collection. Jenkins is a British officer in the Anglo-Indian police force just before the 1947 Partition (a pivotal event in many of the stories in An Unrestored Woman). He has been posted to the frontier town of Rawalpindi for behavior that becomes clear over the course of the story: Jenkins is attracted to men. He has fallen in love a few times in his life, but has never been able (or allowed) to express his feelings. In “The Imperial Police,” Jenkins accidentally causes the death of his latest object of affection in the growing sectarian violence in the city and now has to inform the man’s widow. As I read this story, I thought about what might have been for Jenkins if he’d lived in another time and another place.

“Such a Mighty River” – This might be my favorite story in the entire collection. Alok Debnath (who appears briefly in another story) is a retired man fading into Alzheimer’s. At 84, he’s making the most of what he has left—mostly the companionship of a woman he pays to spoon with him for a few hours. She serves as a reminder of Alok’s beloved wife. One day, Alok decides to go looking for the woman only to become lost in his memories of a day when his wife went missing early in their marriage. Time becomes a blur as Alok wanders the streets asking for his companion and his wife in turns. This is a moving story with a surprisingly violent ending.

“The Road to Mirpur Khas”- This story is a good example of what one can expect from most of the stories in An Unrestored Woman. The story begins with a disruption to the status quo. In the case of this story, it’s the Partition. Arya and her husband are headed for the orchards of Mirpur Khas, intending to work as pickers, before the unnamed husband’s naiveté means they are repeatedly robbed. The husband (and narrator) watches as his more practical wife becomes a prostitute to earn money. She grows more cynical as he comes to loathe himself. Their initial love for each other dies away because the husband emotionally betrayed his wife at a critical moment; he failed to fight for Arya when she needed him to.

The stories of An Unrestored Woman focus instead on emotional damage (which, for some reason, I can handle better than physical violence). And even though many of the stories are about betrayal and love, they offer different perspectives on what constitutes betrayal and how the victim of that betrayal can respond. The characters can either move on (as many of the female characters do) or let it destroy them (as many of the male characters do). This book is a grim testament to the motto “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

When I finished the collection, my honest reaction was “These stories could have been a lot more awful than they were.” I was relieved. I’ve read some terrifying, difficult stories this year. While An Unrestored Woman is not an easy read by any means, it is not as violent as it might have been.

A God in Every Stone, by Kamila Shamsie

When the world is at war or a country is claiming its independence from an empire, what’s the point of digging up the ancient past? Current events keep overtaking Vivian Rose Spencer, Tahsin Bey, and Najeeb Gul as they search for a silver circlet belonging to a Carian explorer named Scylax. The circlet was a gift from Darius of Persia but was lost centuries ago when the Carians (who lived in what is now western Turkey) rebelled. Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone skips from Turkey in 1913 to Peshawar in 1919 and 1930. All three of the archaeologists are enamored of ancient history, to the point where they often grow oblivious to the increasingly dangerous world around them. In spite of warnings from well-meaning family members on all sides, the circlet might get Vivian and Najeeb killed purely by accident.

A God in Every Stone begins with a scene that carries the familiar tone of the halcyon days before World War I. Vivian is assisting the excavate the remains of Labraunda in Turkey, along with Tahsin Bey and three German archaeologists. News of war sends everyone but Tahsin Bey home to their respective countries. Vivian finds work as a VAD nurse before she breaks in the face of needless dead and horrific mutilation. To escape the war and the pressures of British home life, Vivian flees to Peshawar on the trail of the silver circlet. A letter from Tahsin Bey with a reference to a dig that happened outside of Peshawar during the 1909/1910 season gives her a small hope that the circlet may in fact have travelled from Turkey to the Indus valley after Scylax disappeared from the historical record.

The first half of A God in Every Stone is narrated from the perspective of a Pashtun veteran of the Battle of Ypres as well as from Vivian’s perspective. While Vivian looks back to the distance past and lives in the company of British officers and their wives who are trying desperately to preserve the good ol’ days of the Empire, Quyyam Gul returns home to Peshawar after loosing an eye and most of his friends and comrades at Ypres (which he refers to as Vipers). Quyyam Gul tries to find a life for himself, but his bitterness and anger make it hard for him to settle. Meanwhile, his young brother becomes Vivian’s pupil in archaeology, history, and ancient Greek after learning how keen and curious he is. The culminating event of the first part of the book is Quyyam delivering his brother to Vivian’s bungalow to return her books and gifts to Najeeb. Najeeb is required to give up his lessons. The family and Quyyam have decided that it’s not proper for an adolescent boy to spend so much time alone with an Englishwoman. He should be with his people, Quyyam says.

In the later half of the book, the three characters continue on paths they’ve either chosen for themselves or relegated themselves to. Vivian returns to University College in London to teach, excavating when she can. Quyyam becomes an activist in a non-violent independence movement. Najeeb becomes an archaeologist and historian himself. Unlike Vivian, he never gives up on the silver circlet. Unlike most novels, the various plot threads of A God in Every Stone do not eventually knot themselves together. Instead, the main characters bump into each other now and then, but they are mostly solitary. Narrative niceties do not bend to actual history.

Shamsie’s characters show us the deeply seated prejudices and racism between the English and the Turks and the English the Pashtun, Daris, Rajputs, and other ethnic groups of what would become Pakistan and India. The end of the novel, centered on the events of the Qissa Khwani Bazaar Massacre on 23 April 1930, are told Rashomon-style. The day is replayed through the perspectives of all the major characters as they race across Peshawar trying to find each other. Though the novel’s beginning is set up as an archaeological hunt, that is not what A God in Every Stone becomes. Rather, the silver circlet is a MacGuffin to get the characters moving around the globe. Nor is the book about bonding between disparate characters or a journey of personal discovery like many novels. The longer I read, the more I circled back to the question of how the characters related to history. Vivian and Najeeb are firmly in the camp of the past. As long as they can keep digging, they’re content with the world. Quyyam represents the Independence movement. Looking forward to freedom from the British helps keep him from looking back to the disaster at Ypres and the loss of his best friend.

The past and the future collide again and again in A God in Every Stone and, as it was in real life, the conflict remains unresolved. In most novels, this would be a bad thing. I’ve complained about loose ends in books often enough myself. But A God in Every Stone‘s ambiguous ending is fitting. History, past and current, is messy. Most of it won’t make sense without a few decades of hindsight to separate meaning from chaos and signal interference. Perhaps the answer to the question this book poses is to look both backwards and forwards. History brought us to where we are, but change can bring us somewhere better.

Notes on bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend for readers who have trouble remaining in the present or who feel that the future is predetermined. Also recommend for readers who like to think of history as a tidily constructed story of progress.