by James Smith
In this beautiful and
assured collection, Daniyal Mueenuddin works and reworks the eternal
themes of life, love and death. His control never wavers –
neither does his compassion.
The stories are loosely
linked, describing the overlapping worlds of an extended Pakistani
landowning family, headed by the elderly patriarch KK Harouni.
Benevolent and rich, Harouni employs a great many staff and servants to
run his households and his huge farming operation; some of them are
loyal, others exploit him. Put crudely, half the stories are about life
"below stairs", the other half about the Harouni
family and its extended members, but this is to oversimplify their
sublety and reach.
focus on the precarious position of poorer women in contemporary
Pakistani society – their desperate need to make strategic
alliances with men, their ultimate dependence upon them. Sometimes
these relationships are based on love, sometimes love grows from
something more mercenary. Sometimes neither happens, but for as long as
these partnerships last, women have security (and, in the confined
world of the relationship or the household, a little power). However,
as soon as the relationships end – usually as a result of
illness or death – the women are cut off, cast out.
Relationship struggles of a
different kind affect the well-off members of the Harouni family. In Our Lady of Paris,
good-natured Sohail Harouni takes his American girlfriend (they met at
Yale) to Paris for Christmas and New Year. His mother – who
‘knew everyone of a certain class in Karachi, went to dinners
and to the polo and to all the fashionable weddings’
– rents an apartment in Paris at the same time, so that she
and her husband can meet Helen. In a series of quite beautifully
described encounters, Sohail’s mother and Helen come to an
understanding that is as brutal as it is compassionate.
Mueenuddin’s writing has a cool
ambiguity about it that
nevertheless sets the pulse racing. He doesn’t judge his
characters, he simply and very precisely tells.
There is an enormous dignity to these stories – it is a
stunning achievement and a hugely impressive debut.
Read the title story
from this collection in the New Yorker
review was first published on Story)
Smith worked as a
bookseller for ten years before moving in 2003 to Booktrust, an
independent charity that encourages people of all ages and cultures to
enjoy reading. He edits the Booktrust website, the Story website and a
site dedicated to promoting translated fiction.
Book website: In Other Rooms
Mueenuddin graduated from Dartmouth College
and Yale Law School. After a Fulbright
in Norway, he practised law in New York before returning to Khānpur,
Pakistan to manage the family farm. He divides his time between Cairo
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