A Place for Us
By Fatima Farheen Mirza
SJP for Hogarth. 383 pp. $27
Celebrity imprints rank among the publishing industry’s most desperate schemes. If you liked “Edward Scissorhands” – the thinking goes – you’ll want to read books Johnny Depp has chosen to reflect his true passions. HarperCollins, Random House and Grand Central have all signed up stars to direct new imprints, hoping fans of, say, Gwyneth Paltrow or Lena Dunham will follow them into the bookstore to buy their branded titles.
At the very least, it’s a way to get books plugged on celebrities’ Twitter accounts, though I’ve seen little evidence that people choose what to read by the imprint. The whole enterprise has about as much credibility as game show hosts hawking Medigap insurance.
Which brings us to Sarah Jessica Parker, the Emmy Award-winning star of “Sex and the City.” Since that iconic TV show went off the air in 2004, Parker has made millions selling jeans, shoes, perfume and hair coloring, but now she’s going after the big bucks: book editing. “SJP for Hogarth” is the name of her new imprint in the Penguin Random House empire, and this week Parker is releasing her first book.
We have every reason to be skeptical. But SJP is not launching with a celebrity cookbook, a millionaire memoir or anything remotely flashy. Instead, the first book from Parker’s imprint is a work of literary fiction: a quiet novel by an unknown 26-year-old writer named Fatima Farheen Mirza.
And it is absolutely gorgeous.
Honestly, I haven’t felt this awed since I picked up a novel called “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” by a then-unknown young writer named Anthony Marra. Mirza writes about family life with the wisdom, insight and patience you would expect from a mature novelist adding a final masterpiece to her canon, but this is, fortunately, just the start of an extraordinary career.
“A Place for Us” opens at a wedding in Northern California. A doctor named Hadia is getting married, and her greatest joy is that her errant brother, Amar, has returned after three years of silence. The entire family feels suspended between delight and apprehension: Will Amar stay this time? Will their father control his anger at the boy – now a man? Old grievances are exhumed. Long simmering fears flash into fresh flame. Hope too intense to contain excites each member of the family. But these roiling emotions must be managed as the wedding ceremony progresses, as food is served, as guests gossip and offer compliments. Nothing must overshadow Hadia’s special day, not even the return of a prodigal son, for which they have all prayed ceaselessly.
Mirza will revisit that wedding ceremony again and again over the next several hundred pages, but she has no concern with chronology. She wanders through the attic of this family’s memories, lighting upon old and new incidents, little betrayals and secrets scattered across their collective consciousness. We see the parents, Layla and Rafiq, decades ago, before their arranged marriage back in India. We follow Hadia to medical school. We spy a teenage Amar falling in love for the first time, with such intense delight you cann’t help but recalling those disruptive days and nights in your own life.
And what’s more, as we experience all these events from different points of view, they’re gradually polished into new meaning. Little Amar’s spelling test, for instance, is just one of an infinite series of moments in the child’s life – until his father and his sisters consider it later as a point of inflection. Did the boy cheat? Did he really deserve a reward for scoring well? “How were they to know the moments that would define them?” Hadia wonders. Whether that spelling test actually redirected Amar’s life can never be established, of course, but this is a novel about how families create their own history and mythology – and how those assumptions about the past haunt their relations with each other.
Has a household ever been cradled in such tender attention as this novel provides? Possibly, but in a different register. As Marilynne Robinson has done with Protestants and Alice McDermott has done with Catholics, Mirza finds in the intensity of a faithful Muslim family a universal language of love and anguish that speaks to us all.
When Rafiq and his young bride came to the United States, they barely knew each other, but they were united in their determination to raise a faithful family. And so, in many ways, “A Place for Us” is an immigrant tale in that long line of American novels about devout parents struggling to maintain traditional mores amid a secular culture designed to tempt their children astray. But Mirza complicates that common story with a kind of palpable devotion that makes rejection of the parents’ faith unthinkable. “What a strange and archaic world,” Hadia thinks – not with derision, simply astonishment. Yes, she and her sister feel cramped by their parents’ inflexible rules; they have no intention of agreeing to arranged marriages or lives of servitude. But they hear the word of the prophet, too; they feel the same currents of faith flowing through them. The only difference is they’re determined to chart a new Western way of living as Muslims.
The open wound in this family is the youngest child, that wayward son, Amar. He’s sweet and curious, intense and undisciplined. “A young man acting like a young man would not be a problem in any other family,” Hadia thinks. But in (BEGIN ITAL)this(END ITAL) family, the teen’s energy grates against the strictures of Islam, and that clash inspires evermore perilous cycles of rebellion and guilt.
Part of what makes Mirza’s novel captivating is her ability to shift among perspectives so gracefully. We feel the panic of Amar’s parents as they struggle to find some effective balance between discipline and indulgence. And we feel the torment of Amar’s conviction that he doesn’t belong, that he’s not right, that he doesn’t deserve the blessing of salvation and, finally, that he’s not a Muslim. Yet the real agony, which Mirza plumbs with such heartbreaking sympathy, is Amar’s incurable longing for the balm of belief and the embrace of his devout parents.
In prose of quiet beauty and measured restraint, Mirza traces those twined strands of yearning and sorrow that faith involves. She writes with a mercy that encompasses all things. If the demands of Islam make Rafiq behave cruelly toward his only son, those same demands eventually inspire a confession of affection that is among the most poignant things I have ever read. Each time I stole away into this novel, it felt like a privilege to dwell among these people, to fall back under the gentle light of Mirza’s words.