In summers long past, my friend Jill and I would cajole my grandfather or my aunt to drive us to the local library at least once a week where we stocked up on reading for the long summer days. We always registered early for the annual Summer Reading Program, obtained our reading log sheets, and dutifully completed them to drop into the collection box on the librarian’s desk. I still recall with great fondness my favorites from those summers, and I often re-read them before moving on to other things. Maud Hart Lovelace’s Besty-Tacy books, anything by Madeleine L’Engle, Trixie Belden, the Little House series - classics in a time where there wasn’t a lot of choices in children’s or young adult literature.
Years went by, I had a child of my own who loved to read, and he would also register for summer reading (at the very same library, by the way, a nice bit of serendipity for me.) So back we’d go to the library, often riding our bikes (we lived closer than I had as a child) and stopping a nearby donut shop on the way home.
Thus, summer and reading are intrinsically linked in my mind. Already this summer I’ve happened across some wonderful new books, and I thought to write about them occasionally here.
Last week’s find was A Place for Us, a debut novel by Fatima Farheen Mirza, the first selection in a new imprint for Hogarth designated by the actress Sarah Jessica Parker (who knew about this ??) Mirza, all of 27 years old, demonstrates a depth of emotion and thought in her writing that is extremely rare amongst young writers I’ve come across recently.
The novel itself is one of those family sagas I adore so much. It opens as an Indian family gathers for the marriage of their eldest daughter, an intelligent and headstrong young woman who has chosen her groom herself rather than accept the traditional match her parents, Rafiq and Layla, would have preferred. They appeared to have reconciled themselves to the fact that their second daughter is poised to follow in her sister’s footsteps. What tears at the heart of this family is their only son, Amar, who left home three years prior to this date under a cloud of recrimination and loss, but who has reluctantly re-appeared to join the family on his sister’s wedding day.
Just as the stage is set with intricately detailed descriptions of the wedding festivities, the author sends us back in time to the beginning of this family’s life in America, and the bulk of the novel takes us on the journey of that life along with them. Mirza sensitively explores the deep seated expectations Rafiq and Layla had for their children, expectations rooted in a steadfast faith and system of beliefs. She also lovingly leads each one of the characters on a path of discovery into their own beliefs, their own faith, their own self-knowledge.
As we are immersed in this family’s story, we also become immersed in their culture. We see the ways it defines them and also holds them back. Their struggles to express emotion despite experiencing deep wells of love, their unwillingness to allow compromise, their difficulty in forgiving what are perceived as “sins”, their inability to step outside the confines of their high standards - all problems which have cost them dearly over the years.
Mirza has a gift for creating mood and atmosphere with her expressive and contemplative use of language. She reaches right into the hearts of her characters, and seems able to scribe what is written there. I marked several passages as particularly meaningful, but this one in particular stood out to me (and brought tears to my eyes). Layla is writing of her son, Amar, who has left home once again.
"Now her son was gone again. He would be the test of her life. She would have to remain graceful and patient and without despair when thinking of him. It would not be easy but it was not impossible. What was impossible was the wish, the prayer that rose in her again: Just one more moment. Just give us one more. But maybe her heart would never be satisfied; maybe it was ever-enlarging in its want for more. Because she knew that if she were granted one more moment, then another one was what she would ask of. She could live around her son for a hundred years and even then, when it was time for them to part, she would think - but it has been too brief, as brief as stepping from the shade out into the sun, and she would wish to hear again his knock at the door, look up from the duas she was reading to that simple sight of him leaning against the door frame, and he would ask if he could come and lie in her lap, and she would not even have to say yes, he would already know."
As much as this is a beautiful story of family love and redemption and forgiveness, it is also a story very much for our time. A story of trying to merge one culture into a new one, of finding a way to fit into a specific place and time without completely losing the most meaningful aspects of your past.
It is a story about finding one’s place in the world, that elusive “place for us” we can search for our entire lives.