Review: A Place for Us
by Fatima Farheen Mirza (SJP for Hogarth, 2018)
An estranged son, a family wedding, a bright future: what could go wrong? This prismatic family saga explores dynamics between American-born sisters Hadia and Huda, and their younger brother, Amar, who come of age in present-day California. Their traditional Muslim parents, Layla and Rafiq, emigrated from India. Each character faces ebbing and flowing choices in livelihood, religion, and relationships. An ideal choice for book groups!
Elements of growing up Muslim are woven through the narrative similar to ways that being Catholic or Jewish might inform another story. Are you devout, or not? Have you broken a rule? Is your clothing correct? Are you associating with friends that your parents deem suitable? Do you conform or rebel? Are your religious rituals rooted in true, deep-hearted faith, or only confused attempts to uphold outward community appearances? Characters grapple with these universal themes while the novel leaps forward and backward to span decades.
As Layla and Rafiq parent their American-born children their most precious cultural traditions begin to shift. Layla tries to reinforce her own values:
‘Speak in Urdu, Ami,’ she reminds him. Ever since Hadia first learned English in school it has been difficult to make any of them speak in Urdu. They speak in English and so quickly that they sound like little trains zooming by. They act as though it were the superior language, the more stylish one. She has to make it a game at dinner to encourage them. It confuses her. Urdu is the language she and Rafiq speak with one another and all they ever spoke with the children, but one goes to school and the other spick it up like wildfire, as if they’ve forgotten their own tongue entirely. It worries her: if they so easily lose their won language, what else will be lost?
The family endures post-September eleventh anti-Muslim hate. Layla, Hadia, and Huda normally wear hijab, which makes their religion visible. Rafiq forces his daughters to no longer wear their hijabs to school. Amar is bullied at school, and then challenges his father, fearing that his beard “could make him look like the men on TV who had ruined everything. Amar would ask him to shave it off. It would be no different than his sisters taking off their scarves.”
While discovering causes of Rafiq’s strictness - and his guilt - readers also witness young Amar’s rebellion. Amar cannot be the dutiful son that his father expects. He loves an unattainable young woman. After many misunderstandings, Amar casts himself out and away from the family. On the other hand, Hadia, the eldest, embraces all of her parents’ expectations, and becomes heir apparent, despite the fact that Amar is the only son. An incredibly painful and complex sibling rivalry braids loyalty and love into something that might grow, perhaps, to reconciliation.
Anyone who has ever lost a family member to anger, defiance, misunderstanding, or addiction will savor this wise and carefully-rendered debut novel. At the heart, A Place for Us is a love story, a story of family, an exploration of the ways we hurt and disappoint each other, and how bonds endure.