Cinderella’s Tulips, Ugly Artists and Changeling Imps

“Do you love me because I am beautiful, or am I beautiful because you love me?” – Cinderella

From the author of the rich world of witches, animal rights and politics in Wicked comes another re-working of a famous fairy tale – ‘Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister’. Though initially the novel sounds like a comic version of a famous fairy tale and something more gossipy like ‘chick-lit’, the story is surprisingly sober; one of the complexities of art, the burdens of beauty, ugliness, and wealth among many things, and the heartbreak of betrayal and disillusion.

Set in the backdrop of Holland during the tulip mania in the 1600s, where Dutch businessmen speculated on tulip bulbs and invested in their profits in buying more tulips, we are introduced to the Fisher family: mother Margarethe and her two daughters, “lumpy ox” Ruth and unfortunate, ugly Iris. Struggling to put food in their mouths, they arrive at the cautious, reserved Dutch town and are given shelter by an artist they call Master, who introduces them, particularly the sharp-eyed Iris, to the world of Art, beauty and seeing colour. It is not long though, before they come into connection with the beautiful, ethereal, and rich Clara, a lonely and sheltered girl. It’s easy to guess the rest of the story, but the story is told with realistic attention to the characters, no one is blameless and each character has their own part to play, though the journey to the ‘happily ever after’ scene is not as straightforward as it appears, and nor is it so ‘happy’.

There are twin themes which are always spiralling through the novel, when there is attention on one facet; it is inevitable that the opposite is highlighted too. There is a continuous emphasis on Clara’s beauty and Iris’ ugliness, mirroring each other throughout the novel. But with each comes the character’s own insecurities and burdens, with Clara feeling trapped by her beauty and how she is viewed by men, and Iris feeling trapped by her ordinariness because of the lack of opportunities it gives. Clara is constantly dogged by her belief that she is a ‘changeling’, an Other being who does not belong to the real world, and this serves to prevent her from really engaging with he outside world and with other people in society – much like effects of her beauty.

And yet, beauty and ugliness manifests itself in various forms – while traditionally the ugly characters are the ‘bad’ ones in fairy tales, it is much more ambiguous in this tale. Beauty is not given its place of pride, constantly undermined by others jealousy, scorn and disapproval – which is no accident seeing as beauty itself has been repealed by the Calvinistic society. Beauty and goodness is turned on its head – as Margarethe declares, “charity is real beauty”, while physical manifestations cannot always be trusted.

Similarly, the weaving of the role of Art and reality throughout the novel show, much like religion and its various interpretations, showing its role in how people are perceived and how the girls are manipulated. Art is revered and yet similarly restricted, it captures and immortalises both beauty and ugliness, but it also traps the subject on the canvas, manipulating them to be viewed and admired by others. It is not accident that alongside this is the depiction of religious figures, and the rejection of Catholic values as Calvinism and austerity is practiced in the town.

As well as these themes, the idea of commodity is also carried through – of art, of beauty, of women, of Clara herself, of status, of value of tulips and even of identity. They are reflected in everything, the painters capture them, the men desire them, and even the women struggle to have their own share – yet with tragic consequences. The story of Cinderella becomes, then, a voice for more than one character, the desperation, sacrifices and greed of the Stepmother, the marginalisation of the two sisters, and the objectification of Clara, on the edge of womanhood and yet unable to step outside her own home because of how she is viewed by various groups. And there is, of course the men who affect their lives, the painters and the rich businessmen, obsessively lusting after tulips while the women struggle to keep their places in the household.

At its heart, it could be said that this is a feminist novel, albeit a discouraging one – the focal characters are all women, and it is they who are continually struggling to make their identity amongst the male-dominated society. And yet, there is also a positive message too, women are objectified, painted, compared and employed, yet they still managed to take control and use this to their advantage. Margarethe makes ‘deals’ to save her daughters, Clara uses her beauty to change her life, and even plain Iris uses her brain and her artistic mind to lift herself out from obscurity. While we all know how this fairy tale goes, the path to the pretty ball gown and pumpkin coach is a difficult one, and by the end of it, we can’t help questioning who it is that ultimately lives happily ever after. I’ll let you read the book and decide that one.

Gregory Maguire, Confessions of an ugly stepsister (Headline Review, St Ives: 2008) pp.398 £7.99

An Old Lady, and Artist, and the art of manipulation

“A clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory.”  – Mark Twain

Jane Harris’ Gillespie and I seems a simple enough tale; a Victorian old spinster sits in her chair recounting old days gone by, intending to tell us about a young artist she met years earlier in her youth, named Ned Gillespie. Set in the rambling city of Glasgow, the newly-arrived narrator Harriet Baxter pursues her love for art, taking advantage of the fact that she is independent and wealthy, showing her to be a modern woman in her own class. In due course Harriet meets a young, struggling artist who impresses her with his promising talent and his cheerful disposition – Ned Gillespie – with a loving family and a promising career. After saving Ned’s mother from near death (almost swallowing her dentures), Harriet finds herself in the beginnings of a sweet friendship with a respectable family who welcome her into their folds.

Yet while praising Ned and his work, at the same time, from the very beginning, we are warned that Ned will eventually “burn almost all of his work” and he will never become successful, meeting a “tragic and premature death” before his talents are realised. Added to this dark foreshadowing is Harriet’s present-day situation, following her concerns about her live-in carer who seems to have questionable, almost sinister intentions towards Harriet – showing that the warm, close friendship with this new family will not last and she will soon be left alone.
Thus begins the twin narratives which travels and weaves through the novel, in which the present-day Harriet looks back in melancholy, adding a chilling sense of apprehension to her story, while at the same time worrying about her vulnerability and her strained relationship with her carer.

Back in the depths of her memories, Harriet reveals how she slowly carves a niche for herself in the Gillespie family – she becomes a confidante to Ned’s wife Annie, a useful nanny to the couple’s two children, and a empathising companion to Ned’s aches-and-groans-filled mother, eventually becoming a familiar fixture in the family’s home and proving herself invaluable, acting as a jack-of-all-trades within the house, servant, cleaner and nanny.

Soon, however, beneath all of this are unspoken tensions and anxieties, and it is not long before the cracks begin to show and strange things begin to happen within the family.  There is a growing unease as the children’s behaviour begins to become erratic, while Ned begins to feel isolated from his family and there are increasing arguments with his wife, leaving a tense atmosphere and a sense of the unknown. Yet amidst all of this remains Harriet, steadfast, reliable and warm, in her attempts to keep the family together.

It would be difficult to reveal more of the novel without spoiling it, but suffice to say that the bliss and contentedness the family feel does not last for long, as they are soon struck by a mysterious tragedy. It is here that Harris shows her true genius of writing, showing subtly and craftily that all is not what it seems; leaving the story pulling and tugging at the reader’s mind, questioning what is truth and what is hidden. There is always a feeling of being manipulated, but by who is always quietly undermined by Harriet’s steadfast and positive character, and her loneliness in her present-day narration. There are plenty of metaphors too, but just what they point to also are subject to query – her two green finches, for example, which she lives with in her apartment in present-day London appears to symbolise true love, and perhaps even her love for Ned Gillespie – yet what does it mean when one of them die?

This is a book which is truly recommended, progressively pacing from a pleasant picture of family life and an elderly lady’s memoirs into something more harrowing, and it is definitely something which leaves the reader enthralled in the quest to find truth, right to it’s muted, terrifying end – yet ultimately leaving us to make up our own minds about who to trust and what to believe.

Jane Harris, Gillespie and I (Faber and Faber: London 2012) pp. 608, £7.99

Sleeping Beauty re-written: An animal-loving, magical tomboy

A wondrous future lies before you – you, the destined hero of a charming fairy tale come true. And in yonder topmost tower, dreaming of her true love, the Princess Aurora! – Sleeping Beauty, Disney

Robin McKinley’s Spindle End is one of those books which makes you want to read everything written by the author, simply because of how much she makes you fall in love with the characters, the heart-warming storyline, and the curious magical-ness of it all. Spindle’s End brings to life the story of Sleeping Beauty, in a kingdom set where magic is so thick it “settles like chalk-dust everywhere”, and it’s an ordinary occurrence to ‘de-magick’ your kettles of magic, to stop your bread turning into larks, your clothes from running away, where it is illegal to have dealings with fish, and where fairies make an honest living in local villages. And yet the story has a traditional, just King and Queen who strive for a child, and after many years, manage to have a beautiful baby girl, celebrating the occasion with a grand ‘Name-Day’, inviting twenty-one (not three, Disney!) fairies to bestow gifts.

And gifts are bestowed, must to the disgust of one of the main characters, young fairy Katriona, who listens to “pearly teeth”, ‘golden hair” and “a sweet singing voice” being given, until the inevitable, a jealous evil fairy, here named Pernicia, gate-crashes with her own gift, a dangerous sleep for the newborn when she turns twenty-one. It is here that the life of the novel really begins, in the race to protect the Princess, she is smuggled away and raised by Kat in a secret life, “as safe as ordinariness can make her.”

Rosie, as she is lovingly named, becomes a creature to test her adoptive family as well as capture their hearts: she may have a voice like a bell, but it depends on how loud and robust the bell is; she may have a talent for dancing, but you’d have to convince her to dance first, and she may have golden ringlets like corn, but it’s difficult to see the curls after she chops all her hair off. Rosie, then, becomes a feminist in her own right, insisting she is not ‘pretty’ but intelligent, she doesn’t need to wear dresses when she can run after animals in breeches, and insisting that she will have her own career rather than settle down. Deeply entrenched in a lifestyle of her magic-using ‘Aunts’ and her family of animals and male friends, Rosie goes against every archetype of being a Princess, perhaps so because she remains blissfully ignorant of her true identity.

Weaving together the practicalities of magic, the complications of growing older, and the ever-questionable concept of ‘happily-ever-after’, McKinley shows how appearances are not always what they seem. Always through the novel is the underlying threat of the malevolent Pernicia, always searching and always threatening to change their fragile lifestyle, with McKinley creating some tense atmospheric scenes which really show the strengths of characters, putting to test their love for each other.

Rosie, remains, at the heart of all this, an ordinary, confused young woman, constantly re-shaping her identity, her perceptions of family, and the idea of destiny and grand love. While at the forefront, she remains an unusual character who refuses to conform to societal values of what it is to be a young woman, the vestiges of  fairy-tale era still remain – we see how family can mean different things to different people, how duty is perceived, and above all, the idea of Good being expected to triumph over Evil.

This is a novel which makes you fall in love with Rosie, as a Princess, as an unruly child, and as a brave, old-style heroine – and it is not the idea of being a singing, pearly-teethed young woman who remains, but an ordinary (and ironically magical) sister, daughter and fierce friend, who fights for her family and friends as much as she tries to determine her own fate. A recommended book for all, especially if you like fairy-tales with a bit of a kick in them.

Fairy Tales & Long Tails: Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales

With stories of frightened young women giving birth to a pot (yes you read that right!), the Little Red Riding Hood who DOES get eaten by the Hungry Wolf, and old women who live in odd places like vinegar bottles, Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales is hardly the usual type we think of when thinking of ‘fairies’ and ‘happily ever afters’.

I loved reading stories, folk stories and myths from around the world in my childhood (think Spider Anansie and Baba Yaga from Africa, Sinbad the Sailor and Ali Baba from Arabia, Greek gods and goddesses and Egyptians tales of the afterlife), all of which had rich characters, quirky tales and interesting morals to them. Who’d have thought that the stories about the beginning of the world would involve such interesting events – How the Tortoise Got a Hard Back, for example, or How the Snake Lost It’s Legs. Maybe not scientifically accurate by today’s standards, but still interesting stories to read.

And these stories are brilliant at challenging the norm – with beautiful girls leading miserable lives, crafty witches being the winners, wives getting the better of their husbands and the heroes don’t need to be rich to complete their tales.

Angela Carter’s book of tales brings together stories from all across the globe, ranging from Europe, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, America, Australia and even the Artics to fully bring a flavour of several countries and cultures. I love the sinister sides of these stories, the gory sides of fairy tales and human nature, with good nature and humour mixed into this pot of short stories which are a far cry from Disney stories we’ve seen.

Definitely a book I’d recommend if you’re a lover of fairy tales and folk stories, if you’ve read Grimm’s book of tales, Hans Christian’s collection of stories or even Roald Dahl’s genius stories as a child, then these will be right up your street. With stories entitled ‘Reasons to beat your wife’ and ‘The woman who married her son’s wife’ (don’t worry, it doesn’t encourage incest or domestic violence!) there’s certainly a quirky style to these stories which are memorable and magical : )

Grief, Haunting Histories and Romance in the Snow

Have you forgotten yet? …
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Aftermath (March 1919) – Siegfried Sassoon

Kate Mosse’s most recent novel, The Winter Ghosts depicts a young man struggling with the aftermaths of the Great War, including coping with the loss of his elder brother who fought in it. Set a few years after the war has ended, the novel is punctuated with memories of the past interspersed with the unsettling scenes of the present, and descriptions of surrounding landscapes and feelings. There are many themes in this novel which echo Mosse’s previous novels, such as the strong French setting, and the idea of a violent and unsettling event in the past which haunts the present. With “nothing is as it seems” to set an almost melancholy tone and the sense of mystery, Mosse creates the hidden pasts and illusions.

In the style of a true, old-fashioned ghost-story, Mosse introduces an English protagonist, Freddie, who escapes to a quiet, shabby town in France to find himself, amidst coping with the death of his brother and his idealised image of him. As an outsider Freddie sees the country through different perspectives, preferring to relate to it as a form of escape, an Other place: “Here in France I was a stranger” ; it is an alien land which is – “plain, clean anonymous…We suited one another”.

Always reverberating through the story is the theme of being stuck in the past, and always feeling as if there is a ‘story within a story’. There is an overriding sense of irresolution which hangs over the Freddie, he is haunted by the effects of the war and the after-effects which come with it, he is grief-stricken over the loss of his brother George, and he is traumatised by the neglect of his parents who have placed their dead son on a pedestal. With this, comes a sense of isolation which leaves Freddie stuck in an “emotional no-man’s land”, a clever metaphor which weaves in references to the War and the effects of solitary grief. Exploring the idea of being a man, Mosse presents George, as being the ultimate male role model, and something which has been skewed by memory and powerful emotions to become a male figure that has become an unrealistic ideal which Freddie can never match up to. And accordingly, Freddie in contrast feels emasculated by what he perceives as his own weaknesses, his interests and his personality, even down to his love of books and music. Mosse questions then, what it means to be a man in an era where a man’s role is almost dictated to them, and where they must meet expectations of them, or like Freddie, crumble away in guilt and silent docility. The struggle for George to carry on without his brother (“George has been my family” ) and his inability to connect with other shows a larger struggle, that of the idea of male grief and the accepted social norms for how to deal with grief.

Soon Freddie comes across voices, fleeting figures, which is a  different types of haunting, creating a figure of mystery before the readers even see anything latently supernatural. Stumbling across a traditional village which is bound in air of sadness and dogged by their own past he meets Fabrissa, a quiet yet alluring young woman whom he feels drawn to. He quickly connects to her through their shared sense of tragedy and grief, their tragic memories and their loss from their respective pasts. As Freddie wryly notes, “the dead leave shadows”, and this proves to be true in a number of ways.

Freddie epitomises being stuck in the past and the inability to move on, due to his own sense of survivor’s guilt, which is only further emphasised by his growing romance with a woman who he is unable to understand or fully reach. Thus the impossible-ness of his situation is also characterised in this romance, he is unable to move forward or change anything in the past, until he is forced to confront the past and accept the emotions that come with it.

In comparison to this is Fabrissa’s own suffering, her physical prison which correlates to Freddie’s mental one, and the fact that she is, like Freddie, surrounded by violence which has ripped apart her life. Emphasised by the beautiful, green scenic landscape,and the rich, colour-filled descriptions of their surroundings,  which is as lovely as it is eerie, Fabrissa manages to create a spectral atmosphere which builds up as she reveals more secrets about her past. It is no accidental irony that as the re-enactment of the past and Fabrissa’s life begins to build up, so does the feeling of feeling alive become stronger for Freddie – and this can be interpreted in many ways, either as Freddie being distracted from his pain, or seeking emancipation through Fabrissa’s history.

There are several themes which run throughout this book, the beauty of landscape, the idea of male grief and suffering, and violent wars and the effects of it, which all work together to make a surprisingly subdued, yet effective ghost-story. Essentially, there is a love story at the heart of all this, yet it is also quite a tragic one which ultimately suggests that grief is the pervading, although educational, factor in all of this. But the real feeling you’re left with at the end of this novel is one of feeling slightly haunted, the unspoken sense of violence and the powerful sense of wanting to be alive is a lasting one, which creates an unsettling feeling which stays a while after you have finished reading.

Kate Mosse, The Winter Ghosts (Orion Books: London 2010) pp. 282 £7.99

Bagground Snobbery, Arranged Marriages, ‘Fundos’ and Jimmy Choos

“At the moment we have a ruling class that has one law and the people the other” – Imran Khan

Pakistani renowned writer Moni Mohsin’s latest novel in her signature vein of social satire presents ‘Tender Hooks’, a running commentary in diary style on what appears to be, at first, a typical bored, upper class Pakistani housewife’s day-to-day lifestyle. Asked to find a bride for her recently divorced cousin, loveably named ‘Jonkers’, the anonymous heroine of this novel visits the homes of “illegible” females in order to find someone who has a suitable “bagground” and status which meets their standards. Presented in a rambling first person narrative , we follow the protagonist on a very entertaining and comical journey, as she mauls the English language, criticises various unsuitable ‘potentials’ and discusses the merits of buying designer outfits and having similarly designer ‘kitty’ parties with her upper class, all in the backdrop of high society in Lahore, and a “bomb-shombs” culture . Our narrator quickly exposes herself to be a materialistic, and at times, ignorant woman, yet in the midst of her disdain for the lower classes, there are still many jokes to be enjoyed, and surprisingly even some life lessons to be learned.

Constantly interjecting English with Urdu phrases (“haan na”, “yaar”, “haw”, “uff!” ) to combine and create her own pidgin form of English language. This often results in hilarious slip-ups as she ends up with spelling mistakes and errors (“My Oxen-educated husband”), which often undermine her boasts about her brand-name goods and snooty attitude, creating wonderful situations of misspelling and misunderstanding. Mohsin shrewdly presents a woman who arrogantly looks down on those who are “ “total uneducated”, while ironically at the same presenting herself as superficial and as having a poor grasp of English herself. Yet although she is not a woman you’d have much sympathy with, she still proves herself to be a smart, pragmatic woman, helping keeping relatives happy and making the most of opportunistic moments.

There is a strong relevance of families and relatives also running through the novel, even though they are always being described as “a bit bore”, suggesting that the narrator is unwilling to face serious issues with her family. This only further makes her come across as a superficial and childish character (“Mummy is such a side-taker”), although as the novel goes on, it begins to also show how

There is a strong relevance of families and relatives also running through the novel, even though they are always being described as “a bit bore”, suggesting that the narrator is unwilling to face serious issues with her family. This only further makes her come across as a superficial and childish character (“Mummy is such a side-taker”), although as the novel goes on, it begins to also show how

Similarly, although she often underestimates her wealthy husband, her views of marriage are quite traditional. Her assertion that a “full house” equates to a happy marriage, suggests that she is unable to differentiate the difference between popularity and social standing, and a relationship between husband and wife, as she spouts the stereotypical values ingrained in her that she has been brought up with and is expected to follow. It is an interesting irony of both her marriage and her conflict with her husband then, that although she does love her family, she is not really close to her son or her husband, and does not really understand them.

In this respect then, this novel is a subtly feminist one; with wry assertions that “Men are never soiled goods”, and the undermining of feminist rights (being, to the narrator, synonymous with the strange concept of ‘lesbianism’), the writer cleverly shows the various layers of double standards which are always present in society. While men have a better advantage in marriage market, Mohsin’s protagonist shows how women in these social groups are as much trapped in their expectations and superficial values as they judge others in. While there is a continuous contrast of female characters and the male – the men such as Jonkers and Janoo are seen as serious and down to earth – yet not taken seriously by any of the female characters, continuously sidelined despite the fact that they are able to have more ‘serious’, intellectual discussions. In an amusing twist, then, does Mohsin overturn the representation of the marginalisation of women’s roles in Pakistan by choosing to push the wealthy, educated men into the foregrounds, while some are presented as weak and comical, most are not taken seriously by their wives and are left to be grouped together, classed as “tau total bore”.

Yet not the entire novel is presented as a light-hearted romp, in search of a suitable bride. Always simmering in the backdrop are the harsh realities of Lahore: the perils of terrorism and the politics of a country which is falling apart. In one scene of the novel in which the narrator and her friend are held up by a gunman while out shopping, our social butterfly reveals her courageous and gritty side, despite her fear and her indignation at being robbed of her valuables. This effectively helps to view this character in a new light, giving her layers of complexities which reinforces her personality and breaks down her stereotypical ‘bimbo’ image.  Politics, war and  “fundos” (or fundamentalists) are all of the new, growing culture that makes up modern Lahore, and this is never fully ignored by the author. While for the Pakistanis this is a normal mentality and part of their lives, and they don’t really seek to change it, the fact that they have an awareness of the way society has changed shows that they are never fully comfortable and able to ignore the unpleasant aspects of their lives. The most chilling description to describe this state of restlessness is the narrator’s wariness about “who will guard the guards”, which gives a sinister feel about the false sense of security the upper class feel.

Similarly, there is a notable lack of representation of the poor and lower classes, which are seen as nearly invisible, and completely dispensable in the form of servants and maids. Here is a class who are not viewed as equal, and are viewed as commodities by the wealthy upper-class, where the latest outfits and shoes are as important to their stature as servants who can speak English property and can be trained to answer the telephone properly. We see the extent some characters go to mould their reputation, such as renaming their servants to suit their own needs – effectively shaping their servant’s identities to suit their own carefree and errant lifestyles. Thus the importance of ‘face’, status and reputation and how they are viewed by the higher class becomes the very issues which cripples them and restricts them, shaping their actions as they are too afraid not to conform to the norm. In a society where ‘old money’ outweighs ‘new money’, that is, those who inherited their wealth over those who have made their money from successful business, there seems to be an inversion of progression, both in society’s modernisation and in values.

Conversely, however, is the assertion of “Lahore, my city”, always emphasising a sense of belonging and identity, runs along the snobbish tone of the novel, which provides more of a down-to-earth tone, and something to relate to. Through comical devices such as the misuse of language, and the different ‘traditions’ followed by culture (such as the concept of ‘Asian timing’, where “come on time” means  coming at 11 when you’ve been told 9), and superstitious beliefs such as ‘nazar’ (evil eye) and emotional blackmail from Aunties, Mohsin provides a rich commentary on the day-to-day lives of bored housewives and their constant attempts to create their own independent lifestyles of luxury. In addition to this is the continuous imagery and comparisons to people, places and behaviour, such as the risk of “forbidden fruit” simply being “a stinky old banana”, and the description of a suitable wife who is supportive as a “girl, not sports bra”, there are plenty of laughs to be had in this novel.

Mohsin sets off to satirise high society in Pakistan, and ridicule their ‘head in  the sand’ approach to the state of affairs in their country, choosing to comfort themselves with unrealistic luxuries. It is easy to get caught up in the mess that the characters get into, and the journey the protagonist takes, which manages to make us smile and change our perceptions on several things. We see her shallow material self gradually show a deeper, more compassionate facet, and we follow as she learns some important life lessons. While on the other end of the spectrum lies the rich ‘wild-child’, the Western educated daughters who reject their roots and what is expected of them (as is the case in one ‘potential’ bride’), the emphasis appears to stay on the values of family and relationships. Although the narrator can appear callous at times in her judgements, she still makes some shrewd observations which prompt us to view situations in a different way, and humanises her in a way that her yearnings for more designer brands and kitty parties cannot. We see that the importance of various aspects of Pakistan, from the rich and reckless upper-class, to the ‘fundos’ and ‘beardo-weirdos’ add to the landscape of the country, serving to create a soulful image of a changing identity for both country and the author.

Imran Khan’s Pakistan – A New Way Forward

The charismatic Imran Khan – former Pakistan cricket captain, currently a politician, party leader, philanthropist and a man described as “Pakistan’s favourite son” – has released his latest work grandly titled ‘Pakistan: A Personal History‘. And a personal history it is for Khan, having merged his own changing identity and with that of the evolving culture and states of Pakistan. Interspersed with philosophical musings of both his own personal life (“I soon realised there was a world of difference between happiness and pleasure-seeking”) and the frank, rich history of Pakistan from it’s very creation in 1947, Khan uses his own cricket career, personal beliefs, political ideals and even his marriage as a prism to reflect on the larger issues at hand in Pakistan today. Beginning first with his own upbringing and family, and juxtaposing this with the creation of Pakistan from its very ‘independence’ and roots in 1947, Khan reflects on the sad beauty of Pakistan, while also highlighting the increasing troubles the state and its people have been undignified with.

Keen to show a side to Pakistan which has previously been defamed by media, and whose identity has become distorted, Khan details the underlying problems Pakistan has faced. After decades of corruption, disruptions from America and their puppets who are positioned in significant places, power politics and the country’s passive role in the ‘war on terror’, Pakistan appears to have reached despair over the state of its nation, as well as impasse over the anger of its people. Similarly, Khan’s own life, previously that of a playboy, and spoiled rich boy, soon evolves into anger at the state of his home country, his depiction in the media and the coverage on both his cricket playing and his marriage to a non-Pakistani woman – and most of all further strengthens his faith in the role of Islam. It is clear then, that Khan’s life and its ups and downs are followed in context with the changing scenarios in Pakistan’s political climate.

Yet Imran Khan does more than just present complaints and criticisms about the current handling of Pakistan by the government, and the intervention by several Western powers – instead, he proposes a solution in the form of his own political party, Tehreek-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice). Highlighting the ideals of Pakistan’s founder, Jinnah and also praising the ideals of peaceful leader Gandhi, Imran Khan emphasises his own objectives as being similar to these esteemed leaders. In addition to this at the heart of these ideas are the ideals and beliefs of Khan’s favourite poet and philosopher Allama Muhammad Iqbal, who he believes could help reform and re-modernise the country. It is not a coincidence therefore, that Imran Khan has released this book so close to his political campaign which has kicked off, and his bid to be the country’s next President.

His philosophy (among others) revolves around “equal treatment for rich and poor is essential”, changing policies in appointing ministers and incorporating Islam’s morals into the ruling of the country, as well as withdrawing from the war on terror which has, according to Khan, only led to an alternative type of imprisonment for Pakistan under America’s terms, and has led to millions of unnecessary deaths. As Khan sums up, “Colonialism deprives you of your self-esteem and to get it back you have to fight to redress the balance.”
The book then, is divided into several layers. In the first layer, he describes his own personal life and upbringing, and the revelations which he is eventually led to. The second layer is an accurate, sharp account of recent Pakistani political history, and the issues and problems of contemporary politics which need to be addressed. Thirdly, Khan emphasises the role of Islam in history, how its qualities of tolerance, justice, moral values and education are ones which made Islam the leading civilisation for centuries. And lastly, it is a political manifesto for Khan’s objectives themselves, which details his struggles and his expectations for the future.

Yet in all of this, Khan never strays from the overall pervading message in his autobiography – which is that of hope and optimism. Imran Khan states his hopes that Pakistan will overturn its disgraced image, and redeem itself with its rich culture, Islamic morals and with the promising youths of Pakistan and their changing attitudes. Just as Khan himself has resolved his own personal issues, he shows how he hopes to use his own successes in the political sphere, and become as renowned a politician as was his illustrious career as a cricketer.

Pakistan: A Personal History appeals to me because of my own Pakistani heritage, and the fact that Pakistan has had such negative press in the past few years. While Imran Khan has idealistic ideals, my own belief is also that he is an honest, sincere and courageous politician which will not be much appreciated in the world of politics. Khan has certainly done a lot in the name of humane charity, and it is this compassion in him which appeals to the masses. Whether he will be able to carry this over in a potential presidential role, however, is a different story.

Whether you are interested in the cricketer Imran Khan or the politician Imran Khan or just in Pakistan’s current affairs and it’s rich history, this is certainly an enlightening read, and is an interesting insight into the mind of a philanthropist and politician.

Mischief, Secret Love and Bravery from a Freed Slave’s Memoirs

“The moment the slave resolves that he will no longer be a slave, his fetters fall. Freedom and slavery are mental states.”
– Mahatma Gandhi

The award-winning Andrea Levy’s most recent novel, The Long Song follows the intertwined lives of slave, redeemed slave and freeborn black citizen, in an emotional narrative which follows both the last days of slavery as well as its fallout after the abolition of slavery laws. The protagonist of this novel, the sharp witted and frank July uses both her conversational tone and detailed memories to recount her tale, addressing the readers with her humorous and observation interjections, as well as weaving her memories with the events which unravel. Also mixed into her narrative are the lives of her mother, a slave measured purely by her function and value, and July’s own son, given away from birth to live a better life in London, albeit still a victim of prejudice and hardship. Yet this is not a depressing novel; and there is more to these character’s lives than their bondage to their owners. July and her family make it clear that they create their own narrative, and one that is worth remembering.

From the very beginning of the novel, there is a birth, one that is full of rumours, “ornate invention” and tales, and it is this which establishes the theme of storytelling and passing down –emphasising the importance of heritage. While July’s true origins and her birth are revealed as a struggle in a dingy hut in filthy conditions, and the treatment of her mother, Kitty, are no better, it is still clear to us that these are no passive characters. We see in the beginning of the novel the difficulty July has in telling her son her history and story – until she begins to write it down, further emphasising the importance of recording history ( “Your storyteller is a woman possessed of a forthright tongue and little ink” ) and the idea of telling her true story. A significant comparison to the proverbial bored “white missus” and her freedom to write about the “many tribulations of her life” and her incessant “puff and twaddle” further shows how the ‘wrong’ truths are focused on by the white slave owners (and by implication, the white coloniser). In this way, July’s own narrative corrects these views that have been peddled to the readers, carrying a strong postcolonial message of rewriting the image of the black slaves and their representation. It is ironic that July refuses to write her tale with all the unnecessary descriptions and complaints that she assigns to the white woman writer, as she too fills her scenes with distraction and details, as well as interruptions from her son as she writes her novel and minor events which occur, showing how she chooses to take control of her own version of storytelling, while emphasising its difference from previous writers.

July is repeatedly urged by her son to write about the events of history and slave emancipation – “the firing of plantations”, the “leader of the rebellion”, how the “regiments marched and the militias mustered” while the “bullets sparked like deadly fireflies; and bare black feet ran nimble though grass” – yet July knows nothing of this as she did not witness it. She does not wish to glorify her story with recorded facts and “pamphlets” but rather record her own history. So we are presented with the idea of truth and recording history accurately. She shows her own conflict in wanting to show the true events and also not wanting to let down or undermine the courageous actions of the freed black slaves who fought to put her in the position that she is now in. Yet July is also clear that each character has their own views and experience of slavery and prejudice, and it is this which cannot be forgotten also. The sad irony is that for July and her fellow slaves, they never really experience the war, it is built on rumours, talks and information from others. Her assertion that “You paint untruth” shows the danger of romanticising the truth, and using it to fit a certain agenda. So we see the idea of layers – of time, of stories, of narratives, personality and feelings, subtly woven through the novel, as July makes her own mark as slave, narrator, woman and a storyteller.

Accordingly, the concept of “free” becomes a big one in this novel, and one that is mulled over and chewed over by all the characters to mean different things and have different effects. We see how at first it is just a rumour, and seen as part of the normal gossip between the slaves, yet these are punctuated with powerful scenes which define the status of the slaves. The scene in which the end of slavery is symbolised by the coffin which is filled with shackles, chains and handcuffs by the slaves is an effective one, although it is voiced by July it does not show so much of her personal feelings and thoughts, than a collective memory by all the slaves in the residence. It is this which shows what ‘free’ means to them, and the importance of collective and individual identity.

There are still, some factors which undermine this freedom, however, and the irony lies in the ‘values’ of slaves. July’s realisation that the price of the slaves makes no difference to the “bewhiskered white men in England” shows how they must look to themselves for their own value instead of being defined by their value as slaves and what they can bring for their owners. Although July’s disappointment in her ‘freedom’ makes her feel as if she has no cause to celebrate (after all, “what change had free brought?”), it can be said that July’s disappointment lies in wanting things to be changed automatically with the word ‘free’, until she gradually begins to realise the importance of creating your own identity and taking it with your own hands. Another facet to the idea of value which also recurs is the representation of “mulattos” and mixed race slaves, and how they are perceived. In an unspoken hierarchy of colour, where light skin is seen as beautiful, characters just as the light-skinned Miss Clara, who aspires to marry a white man shows how they define themselves according to the values set by their white owners, and how this is something that they will never be able to meet.

The character of Caroline, July’s mistress, represents the typical white woman’s attitude towards the Caribbean. At first seeing Jamaica as novel and exotic, Caroline is eager to try everything and revel in the idea of being in a new place. Yet this is abruptly contrasted in the stark contrast to the way she views the “negroes”, and both her fear and repulsion for them. It is this which stops her from ever seeing them as her equals, and even as humans, and her coping device is simply to ‘master’ the slaves. The ease in which she takes way July from her mother to be brought “up in the house” as her maid is just one example of many in how Caroline expects her whims to be met. Over the years, her character is no less spoilt, and she becomes more and more the archetypal white slave owner; lazy, cruel and blind to her own faults. Her assertion that “I am forgot” in the midst of change epitomises how she is indeed left behind in her own narcissism, and too caught up in her own needs to help herself.

Always running through the novel is also the various languages and expressions, revealing a mix of cultures. The combination of Caribbean dialect spoken by the slaves with the proper English as spoken by their owners serve as manifestations of their differences, yet it is also these will allow the slaves to create their own dialect between themselves and control their own words. Even July’s narrative becomes emotional when recounting her memories, and her ‘native’ dialect surfaces during painful scenes ( “Him wan’ me suffer every likkle t’ing!” ) showing perhaps, the age old psychological theory that we revert to our childhood when dealing with our pasts. While the narratives of the white characters are maintained by their English tone and dignity, the contrast in the detailed, almost vulgar descriptions of the lives of the slaves and their troubles further emphasises the liveliness and vitality of the society of slaves and their day-to-day lives. While we see how the slaves are beaten and punished, Levy also presents a comical side to lighten the tone, describing elaborate lies thought up by slaves to avoid trouble and the mischief they get up to. This is not don’t to undermine or hide July’s pain, such as missing her mother and counting down the days since she last saw her, but rather shows her refusal to just submit and become an object, keeping her personality alive with quiet acts of mischief and rebellion. Perhaps for July, the real war is fought on the domestic front, and certainly this is her experience. Her gradual defiance of her mistress and her appropriation of her mistress’ status – such as her secret relationship with Caroline’s husband, and her ability to bear children where Caroline cannot – shows how July takes control of her own identity and her own value.

There are several stories which run parallel in this novel, July’s life, her mother Kitty’s history, and July and her own son’s relationship, which continuously shows the importance of mother-child bond. Yet there are also other narratives running alongside this, such as Caroline’s story herself, showing a facet of the ‘poor white girl’ and her own loneliness. While there is always there is an emphasis on the difference between the black slaves and the white society, July’s story also shows that just as emancipation is importance, so is their history as slaves. The fact that the slaves appear to be always living a second-hand lifestyle, living off their owners, scavenging from their food, drink and clothes and ultimately trying to imitate them is also something which makes up their survival techniques, and not something which is their lasting identity. July shows that just as ‘free’ and ‘change’ are important concepts to aspire to; there are also responsibilities that come with these, as well as the importance in coming to terms with themselves. It must be noted, however, that this is a not a heavily political novel, nor is it one that focuses entirely on suffering of the slaves. By no means does it tear down the reader’s spirit by making us feel helpful and angry at the treatment of slaves, and July, as well as the author, makes it clear that they do not wish to define their lives by the suffering they have endured, and the hardships as both slave and ‘free’. We as readers are encouraged to opt for the happier ending, rather than the “fuss-fuss” which also occurs. Yet ultimately, we applaud as the spirited July makes her own mischief, smile as she finds love in various forms, and cheer as our heroine asserts herself and her identity, always insisting that she has her own history to tell and to be remembered. July is a victim of her circumstances, but in no way does she behave as one, and it is this which remains with us through the novel.

Andrea Levy, The Long Song (Headline Review: London 2010) pp.312 £18.99

The Guardian’s National Book Swap Begins…

The Guardian has announced the start of their national Book Swap this month, which runs until the end of the month, in which 15,000 volumes have been left around the country for free, for potential readers to pick up and find. From anywhere like cafes, parks, benches, the rules are that they have to be clearly marked with The Guardian’s bookplates and left anywhere you like (apart from, of course, libraries and bookshops – don’t want people thinking that we’re theiving books now, do we?). And the newspaper has even helpfully made a Flickr Map for readers to pinpoint where books have been dropped and where they have been found. If you’re stuck for ideas, here’s a few places where they’ve already been left (didn’t think of shopping trollies, did you?)

So on go on, release your books into the wild and let them roam, and do let me know if you manage to come across any whippersnappers! : )

A Pinch of Henna, Luxurious Saris and of course, Good Wedding Biriyani

For what do we live,  but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Richness does not mean having a great amount of property: rather, true wealth is self-contentment.
Prophet Mohammed (Peace be upon him) Salih al-Bukhari Vol. 8: #453

Farahad Zama’s debut novel The Marriage Bureau for Rich People, from its very beginning, makes it clear that weddings are a lot less straightforward than just a simple matter of ceremonies and finding a bride. In an engaging, almost cheery tone which is reminiscent of Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ series, Zama’s colourful narrative style, friendly characters and rich descriptions of South Asian culture provide a suitable vehicle for depicting Indian weddings and their traditions.

In a system where height, colour, age and caste are all measured to determine a sense of ‘suitability’ in potential partners, Zama cleverly shows how discrimination of this kind is still alive in today’s society and even condoned. Mr Ali, the central character in this tale, with his wife Mrs Ali, sets up a marriage bureau for rich people, and takes advantage of these discriminations for a more beneficial purpose – assisting the respectable and the rich in their search for a partner, drawing on these values into being seen as socially acceptable, so that the search for “totally unsuitable candidates” becomes a business dealing in physical traits and social standing. With complaints of prospective partners being either “too dark or too old or too short”, Zama turns the idea of a ‘Jane Austen’-type society on its head, where propriety and politeness becomes its own currency in this city, and where courtly manners hide selfish values and family politics.

Also a familiar vein running through this novel is that of gossip in various forms, whether they are chatty exchanges between two neighbours, or in remarks of the more serious matters discussed by business men. Similarly, there is a dual mix of village life and bustling city landscape – which is an apt reflection of their mentality. As one client of Mr Ali’s marriage bureau sums up, “For all that this is supposed to be a city, Vizag is just an overgrown town”, implying that everyone are conscious of ‘people talking’ and making assumptions based on gossip. In this way, we how various people are restricted by the idea of respectability, suggesting that they are governed by unspoken codes of society in which affects how they are viewed by their peers and their ideas of ‘proper’ behaviour.

The fact that the marriage bureau itself is set up for rich people reflects the class divides and discrimination, such as clients requesting Brahmin (a high caste in the Hindu caste system) brides being giving priority, while others who request ‘no preference’ are seen as having lesser values and being perceived as more common. Although the author is careful to maintain a strikingly amiable relationship between the Hindu and Muslim inhabitants of the city, he simultaneously highlights the how class differences and caste prejudice are still present, and this is a fact which is always simmering beneath the pleasant tone and fun of arranging marriages. While there is a seemingly pleasant hotpot of cultures and religions, Zama shows that how this inequality is perpetuated by the members of this culture themselves; indeed they see it as an acceptable way of life and something not to be questioned.

This is contrasting jolt to the reality exposed by the Alis’ son, the youthful and morally righteous Rehman, and his refusal to accept these prejudices. His fight for justice for the working class farmers against the attempts of the government to buy out their land adds a double narrative to the novel and gives a more serious tone of the novel. Also in addition to this are the dilemmas of the inadequate healthcare system for poorer citizens, who are unable to access affordable healthcare due to hospital fees and the lack of respect from doctors. Thus we see the conflict between the young and the older generations, as both struggle to assert themselves and what they believe in. While the elder generation struggle to preserve their traditions and the status quo, the younger generations appear to challenge it in order to improve the society they live in, although this feels to be a slow process, trickling through with not a lot of information on consequences.

Similarly, we see how the value of women in certain roles of jobs, marriages and within the family are also subtly picked up upon, showing how they are expected to surrender to expectations and family politics. The dilemmas and unspoken rules that women have to follow in marriage – in pleasing their mother-in-laws, sisters-in-laws and husbands – and in turn, how to overcome the marginalisation that they experience show they are forced to create their own rules in order to cope with and meet expectations. Similarly, the representations of women who choose to work also influence their positions as members of society as well as of within their family units, in their own attempts to be independent. The character of Aruna, the Bureau’s assistant, particularly represents the working-class woman, who is forced to work due to her family’s poverty. Zama delicately highlights the effect on both her and her family due to her silent role as the embarrassed family breadwinner. Ironically the readers are always reminded of the difference of a potential son who could be the proud source of income, and change the pride of their family. In this respect this is also a feminist novel – by highlighting the strained pressures that are on South Asian women have to follow, Zama also shows how these expectations can often be the causes of a difficult marriage or family. However, one criticism of this novel is that although the author points out continuously how society appears to follow superficial, tradition-bound rules which can cause difficulties, the author does little to address this properly. The dilemma of Aruna and her secret love for a richer, higher status suitor is explored, and the reasons behind her anguish detailed as being due to social values, yet this social caste system and people’s perceptions are not addressed.

With constant references and quotes from various stories and sources, religious stories and city gossip, Mr Ali (and by implication, the author) appears to be well versed in both Muslim and Hindu texts, suggesting that he is representative of the wise, generic storyteller. Yet his narrative at times glosses over true social problems, highlighted only in flashes such as Rehman’s fight for justice for the lower classes, or Aruna’s realisation of her restricted status as a woman and a poor person. With plenty of wedding scenes, references to pop and Bollywood culture, traditions and class rules, it can be argued that Zama does capture a reflection of Indian city life, and certainly it can be argued that it is more true to life that we would like it to be. There are certainly prejudiced based on class, physical traits and caste which still exists today, and Zama does not seek to ignore this, but by representing it as it is. It can be argued that Zama attempts to create awareness for these types of mentalities in order to point out what is wrong with it, as well as showing how South Indian minorities have their own ways of coping with marginalisation.
And of course there is plenty of humour, and this light-hearted tone abounds despite the heavier issues which subtly emerge. There are conspiracy theories ( “In Naidu’s opinion…the British were justified in taking the Koh-I-Noor diamond for their queen’s crown jewels because they had set up the postal service in India”) and light-hearted humour involving situations of potential matches, and it is this which our author urges us to enjoy. Even though this novel is set in India, its issues are still relevant to those of us in the Western world today; the sensitivities and politics of marriage, the treatments of those more disadvantaged than us, and the relationships between family, friends and neighbours.

Farahad Zama, The Marriage Bureau for Rich People (Abacus: Great Britain 2008) pp.276 £7.99