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A review of Soniah Kamal’s “Unmarriageable: Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan”

I received an uncorrected proof of “Unmarriageable: Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan” by Soniah Kunmarriageableamal through Netgalley.com, a retelling of Jane Austen’s classic novel, “Pride & Prejudice.” I enjoyed Kamal’s re-imagining of the characters and plot and found myself searching online for everything from locations, clothing, food, and literature.

The story begins in December 2000 in the classroom of Alysba Binat (think Elizabeth Bennet), a teacher for the upper grades, where she is having students rewrite the opening line of Austen’s novel: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Alys tries in her own way to speak into the lives of these young women at the British School Group. She doesn’t want them to fall into the trap of a patriarchal system, thinking that their only future is to marry young and have children, but instead finish school and go to university. Jenazba Binat (Jane) teaches the middle grades, and we are introduced to the rest of the Binat girls on the way home from School: Marizba (Mary); Qittyra (Kitty); and Lady (Lydia).

Unlike Austen’s novel, we are given the back story on the Binat family where they went from riches to rags following a betrayal by Barkat Binat’s brother, Goga, and his wife/cousin, Tajwer (Tinkle) Binat. They can only afford a ruin in front of a graveyard in Dilipadad. The graveyard is where Alys meets Sherry Looclus (Charlotte Lucas), who here is a smoker and about 10 years older than her.

The Binats are invited to the Nadir Sheh and Fiede Fecker wedding – very much a ball from a mehndi and nikah ceremony to later walima. It’s there that Jena and Alys meet Fahad Bingla, nicknamed Bungles; and Valentine Darsee. Jena is invited to a charity polo match in Lahore where they stay with their aunt and uncle nearby. And here Jena turns her ankle and Bungles carries her out of the match like Marianne in Sense & Sensibility. Alys shows up sweating to beat the band after a walk, reminiscent of Elizabeth’s trip to see Jane at Netherfield when she became ill. Where Austen’s Elizabeth is a reader, Kawal’s Alys is more of a professor of literature. I’m thinking that the book needs a section marked “Alysba’s reading list” because of all the titles included. (I added “Sunlight on a Broken Column” by Attia Hosain to my Goodreads bookshelf.) It is in the clinic with Jena that Alys has a great conversation with Valentine Darsee who says to her:

Darsee: “We’ve been forced to seek ourselves in the literature of others for too long.” Alys: “But reading widely can lead to an appreciation of the universalities across cultures.”

Speaking of different cultures, as a predominantly English reader, I appreciated Kawal’s brief translations after (I believe) Urdu sentences or words to English. I very much enjoyed looking up details from locations in Pakistan to the details about the three wedding ceremonies. I enjoyed looking up the clothing in this novel, such as when Pinkie Binat supplies her girls saris, gharanas, chararas, dupattas and shalwar kurtas for the wedding.                                                                                                                                                            Woman in wedding lehenga

My food knowledge was also expanded. The novel is a foodie paradise. I may have to order the foods that were at these events from beef biryani, seekh kebabs, tikkas, naan, gulab yamun, firni, samosas, and kulfi ice cream. I love chai tea so the fact that this was offered throughout the novel made me wish I was among the visitors.

I did shake my head over the names in this novel from Jeorgeullah Wickaam to Humeria and Sumeria Bingla (Hammy & Sammy). The names were close and probably could use a bit of distance. The novel did stick with the original plot but added some nuances, such as what went on in the mind of Sherry Looclus upon learning Farhat Kaleen’s proposal to Alys was turned down. I could sense Sherry’s anxiety as she figured out her next moves to “grab a husband” after all the times she had been turned down. You feel the rift between Alys and Sherry more keenly but you understand why Sherry would see Kaleen as a ticket to a better life.

I will say I tend to read novels that don’t include curse words or sexual situations. I remember Stephen King says curse words are natural and expected, but really I don’t need an author to tell me the exact curses someone uses. If the character curses, my imagination can supply a curse word. That said I’m not sure what age group the novel is intended, but I’m thinking this is for adults. Jaans and Sammy Bingla-Riyasat use a modified F-bomb during a New Year ’s Eve party – modified in that I’ve never heard that form used here in the U.S.  Earlier in the novel, Sherry makes an allusion to masturbation to Alys, something about liking her hand when Alys isn’t interested in marriage. Some of the characters take a moral hit too but I realized in telling them I’d probably give away spoilers on the plot.

My overall impression was positive though in that I left the novel having learned something new about Pakistan and the Muslim faith. Using Pride & Prejudice as an outline, Kawal takes the reader on a cultural journey and breathes new life into Austen’s characters and plot. I laughed when Lady sprayed spittle as she made fun of Valentine Darsee’s first name, and later laughed when Jena was caught threading her moustache when Bingla came to call. It’s so much better than trying to get rid of sewing or clean up food trays in the drawing room. I look forward to seeing the completed novel in January 2019. To purchase this novel, go to Amazon at: https://www.amazon.com/Unmarriageable-Novel-Soniah-Kamal-ebook/dp/B07CKG686Z/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1540677263&sr=1-1&keywords=unmarriageable

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