For this month's Book Club the author Jen Campbell reviews A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza.
I met Fatima Farheen Mirza at the Vintage offices. She was visiting from the States, where her debut novel A Place For Us had just been released. It's caused quite a stir, and rightly so. The first book from the SJP for Hogarth imprint, her novel has been championed by Sarah Jessica Parker, and has been spoken about on television, on the front of magazines it's the kind of publicity that a first-time author can only dream of.
I'm often wary of books that garner so much attention, worried that perhaps the hype isn't justified. Call me cynical. So, I came to the book not knowing what to expect and completely fell in love. I hold my hands up and say it's the best novel, by far, I've read this year, and I've already pressed it into the hands of many of my friends, and my mother, too. Fatima started writing it at the age of eighteen and promised herself that she would work on it for ten years, and if she couldn't make it work by then, then she'd try her hand at something else. I'm an author myself and I can't imagine, at the age of eighteen, having the self discipline to work on one thing for ten years. But she did, and she finished it within eight years, at that. Let me tell you: this book is a masterpiece.
It's been the highest aim of my days, Fatima told me. My goal, every day when I was writing it, was to simply understand these characters better.
For me, these characters live in a way I haven't seen for quite some time. A Place For Us focuses on five members of one family: parents, Layla and Rafiq, and their three children: Hadia, Amar and Huda. These children are first generation Indian immigrants living in America, and throughout their childhood navigate the space between their parents' expectations, the way their school friends view the world of Islam, and who they define their ever-changing selves to be. We begin at the eldest daughter Hadia's wedding, learning that her brother, Amar, has been away from the family for several years. There's been a feud. From there, we branch into the past twenty years to uncover what's happened. It's a beautifully woven, narrative family tree, mapping out the often insignificant moments that have, over time, become weighted.
By jumping from one family memory to another, never in a linear fashion but written in such a way that the reader never feels lost, Fatima's novel asks us to look at one argument, one comment, one hesitation: was this the moment that caused everything? How do we remember events differently, and how are our memories flawed? How much do our future selves alter our memories of the past to make us feel more comfortable with the choices we have made?
The best novels trust their audience. They trust us to read between the lines, to fill in the blank spaces that have been oh so carefully placed within the text. A Place For Us does this. We're shown multiple memories several times, from different perspectives. We are invited to see and empathise with nearly all of the characters, and because of this, this novel is all the more heartbreaking. We cannot point at one person and attribute blame, because life is not like that. As onlookers, we want to step in and fix a miscommunication. We want to tell Amar to talk to Hadia; to nudge Rafiq and remind him that his children care deeply about him; to hug Layla, and to ask Huda how her day has been. It is a pleasure to spend time with this family, to feel close to them as they orbit each other, as they miss each other, as they live under one roof and yet exist on different plains.
While we were talking, Fatima placed a hand on my arm and asked me: What are the moments before we solidify into the people we become?
I'm still haunted by her book and this question.
Perhaps it will be a further ten years before Fatima publishes another novel. That's ok. I'll wait.
This review was written by the author and poet Jen Campbell. The book club exists in a purely digital sphere but we hope that you will add your own thoughts and comments below. As a thank you, all those who comment will be entered into a prize draw to win a copy of A Place for Us. We have two to give away. Prize draw ends Monday 8th October.