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In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

Daniyal Mueenuddin

" Almost with horror she watched him approach her, then stand in front of her, looking into her face, and she hardened herself to meet him, eyes dimming, seeing through him …"

Reviewed 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. 

Servants' tales 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

(This review was first published on Story)

 James 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.
James' other Short Reviews: William Boyd "Dream Lover"   

Tim Winton "The Turning" 

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Publication Date: 2009

Paperback/Hardback? Hardback

First collection?Yes

Book website: In Other Rooms 

Author bio: Daniyal 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 and Pakistan.

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