A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
Published by SJP for Hogarth
Publication date: June 12, 2018
Genres: Book Clubs, Contemporary, Cultural, Debut, Fiction, Literary
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A Place for Us opens just before the beginning of an Indian family wedding in California. The bride, Hadia, is hoping that her brother, Amar, will show up. No one in the family has seen him for three years, but Hadia hopes their bond is strong enough to bring him back, despite the problems with their father that made him run away. Amar does attend—marking the wedding as both an ending and the beginning of Fatima Mirza’s debut novel about complicated family relationships.
A Place for Us is one of those novels I welcome because, beyond the larger sphere of human nature and relationships it shares a smaller slice of life unlike any I know. Hadia’s family is Muslim and Mirza’s portrayal of their lives is fascinating and sometimes unfathomable. Although set in modern times, the pervasive cultural belief is the importance of a male heir so the pressure is put on the woman to bear males and for those males to succeed and further the family line. Really? Still? Just as far-fetched are the beliefs that women are responsible for men’s sins of desire and are incapable of taking care of themselves.
Archaic misogyny aside, there is the beauty of unfamiliar rituals and their impact on the participants:
Her mother touched Hadia’s forehead with her index finger and traced Ya Ali in Arabic, the gesture done for protection and luck before every first day of school, every big exam…Something about the movement of her mother’s finger on her forehead, the look of concentration on her face as she prayed, calmed and comforted Hadia.
The tenderness of scenes like this bring the novel to life, which is necessary because A Place for Us is largely an introspective novel. There is very little action or plot and much of the novel’s information is relayed in flashbacks. Initially, this makes for an odd juxtaposition because although there is very little action happening, Mirza cuts quickly back and forth in time amongst generations, which can become quite confusing.
As things settle, Mirza focuses on the innermost thoughts and motivations of Hadia, her mother, and, in the last part, her father. Much of these memories revolve around Amar and their history with him with each feeling they failed him. This is poignant, in the way of all family secrets and pain, but we never hear from Amar, the character at the center of all their lives, which left me unsatisfied. Mirza shares only his vague sense of never belonging, but doesn’t do so in enough detail for me to have gotten a sense of why he felt this way and why he chose to remove completely himself from the family. Despite these shortcomings, A Place for Us is an exquisitely written debut and Mirza a promising writer.