This book had almost too much hype surrounding it, as it was the first book to be published by Sarah Jessica Parker’s new imprint at Hogarth Publishing, called SJP. (She is best known as the lead actress from TV’s Sex and the City.) Apparently, it was hand-picked by her and she described herself as being “taken hostage by Fatima Mirza’s heartrending and timely story.” I was naturally excited when I was able to get a copy of the book to read — I expected it to be mind-blowing.
At the outset, I must say that it was not. It tells the story of a traditional Muslim family living in the San Francisco Bay area — although it would be more accurate to say that it is more of a narration of their lives rather than a “story” as such. The parents are extremely religious and follow all the Islamic rules and rituals. They have three children, all of whom were born in the US. You would expect some kind of conflict between the parents and the kids, some kind of culture clash, which is so much a part of the immigrant experience. However, for the family in A Place for Us, the two older children — who are girls — grow up following the religion and being obedient daughters, not out of fear of their parents but because they simply do not question their faith. While they do go on to achieve professional success — one becomes a doctor and the other a teacher – their lives are firmly rooted in Islam. They both wear the hijab and end up marry Muslims. About the only rebellious thing the elder daughter does is marry a Muslim boy from a different sect!
There is some drama, however, that comes from the youngest child, Amar, who does rebel – he smokes, drinks alcohol, and eventually gets into drugs, all of which are forbidden by Islam. Naturally, he clashes with his traditional parents and ends up leaving home. And oh, he also falls for a girl, but she is also a Muslim. That is the extent of his non-conformity. Amar never returns home, apart from a brief visit for his sister’s wedding. The book ends with the father looking back on his parenting with some regret and wishing that he had been less angry and more loving with his children, so that his son was not driven away.
This, really, was the extent of the plot of the book. Apart from Amar rebelling and leaving the house, nothing really happens. There is no other issue, no calamity as such. It made me wonder why I was even reading about this family, with its relative lack of problems. If all they had to worry about was one child not being sold on the religious beliefs of the family, they seemed to be very lucky. Even the fact that they were Muslims in an increasingly Islamaphobic world did not emerge as an issue. There was only a brief reference to 9/11 and its aftermath — Amar got into a fight at school and the two older girls stopped wearing the hijab for some time following their parents’ advice — but that was about it. A passing reference is made to the 2016 election towards the end of the book, but I imagine that most of the book must have been written before the current hostile political climate.
Given the lack of a real plot, what may have given the book credibility and led to its selection by Sarah Jessica Parker as the first book for her new imprint was that it was very well written and provided a lot of details about the lives of the individual members of the family. I could see how this could be a novelty to Western audiences, allowing them a glimpse into a totally different way of life and culture — how a Muslim family lives in the US, how the kids are brought up, what are the customs and rituals they follow, and so on. However, as someone from India who now lives in the US, none of these details were new to me or even especially interesting. It was as if anyone could just capture the mundane details of their life — how they were brought up, the little things they did, their relationships with their parents and their siblings, etc. — and it would be worthy of publication in a novel. I imagine that many of the details in A Place for Us come directly from the author’s own life and experiences, given that it is her first novel and most first novels tend to be very autobiographical.
I would put this book in the same category as Exit West, another book that was highly acclaimed by critics, but which I did not much care for. While I appreciate the fact that these young authors are getting a chance and feel happy for them, I wish critics and publishers were a little more discerning and found books with some real merit to them.
A Place for Us
Author: Fatima Farheen Mirza
Publisher: SJP for Hogarth
Publication Date: June 2018
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.