A couple of years ago, my book club read Soniah Kamal’s first novel, An Isolated Incident. We were lucky to spend a lovely afternoon with the Atlanta-based author, drinking chai and discussing the book’s themes of love and terrorism, the characters’ motivations, the author’s international upbringing, her writing journey and more. I enjoyed Kamal’s writing style and knew I’d pick up whatever she wrote next.
Fast forward to this year when Umarriageable hit the shelves and made a splash as Amazon’s Best Book Pick in January 2019 and The New York Post’s Book of the Week Pick, with mentions in Bustle, Parade, People Magazine and more. Kamal is an award winning writer and her work has appeared in publications such as The New York Times and The Guardian. Her TEDx talk about finding the blessing in unfulfilled dreams is inspiring.
Umarriageable, a desi retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has the same strong writing as Kamal’s previous novel but with a far different tone which speaks to her versatility as a storyteller.
|“I’ve read Wrath and Mockingbird,” Darsee said. He skimmed A Passage to India. “I haven’t read much local literature, not that Passage is local per se, though it’s up for debate whether it’s the nationality of the author or the geography of the book that determines its place in a country’s canon.”
“Val” – Hammy gave him her most dazzling smile -”have you read Love Story? It’s really short and belongs everywhere, for love knows no boundaries.” She sighed theatrically. “Love transcends country and geography.”
Alys and Darsee both gave Hammy equally amused glances.
“I believe,” Alys said to Darsee, “a book and an author can belong to more than one country or culture. English came with the colonizers, but its literature is part of our heritage too, as is pre-partition writing.”
Set in modern day Pakistan, the story follows the Binat sisters – Alys, Jena, Mari, Quitty and Lady – as they navigate the age-old pressures of finding suitable grooms while striving to create their own identities as independent women. For fans of the original novel, the author’s clever play on the characters’ names (“Alys” for Lizzie, “Darsee” for Darcy, “Sherry” for Charlotte and my personal favorite – “Bungles” a.k.a Charles Bingly) will become a delightful game of figuring out who is who.
On the surface, Unmarriageable offers up humor, wit, romance, the seemingly over-the-top but ironically true-to-life characters and the classic dilemma of log kya kahenge (what will people think?). But underneath are deeper themes of post-colonialism, feminism and even homosexuality. Kamal explores the notion of “home” when you’ve grown up outside your country of origin and the importance of literature in shaping a society. Her love for books shines through with references to Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf, Jamaica Kincaid and Toni Morrison.
What made this story satisfying was not only a happily-ever-after ending but also a look into what happens to the Binat sisters after the final curtain, how they spread their wings in their own unique way and fly. Marriage is one aspect of Alys’s and Jena’s lives, a pillar that stands alongside their individual passions and careers.
Ultimately, with this retelling, Kamal shows us that the best stories are those that transcend time and place, where worlds collide and we realize that our experiences are truly universal.
Kalyani Deshpande (www.kalyanideshpande.com) writes thought-provoking, cross-cultural stories that uplift and inspire. She has completed one novel, The Year of Yes and is currently working on a collection of magical realism short stories. Kalyani lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two sons.