Baba pointed to the sky, and Amar looked, past the stars and past the lighter patch of the Milky Way, past the moon, and maybe God was there and maybe God wasn’t, but when Baba said to him, “I don’t think He created us just to leave some of us behind,” Amar believed him. Amar wanted to.
From the beginning we are brought into the lives of Amar, Hadia, Huda and their parents Layla and Rafiq- a Indian-American family balanced on the edge of tradition and modernity. It is this balance that creates within each character a unique relationship with the world around them, and through the author, Fatima Farheen Mirza’s, unique temporal structure we are able to see the meaningful instances of their past that influence their future selves.
Mixed amongst the family’s story are events of recent history and the overt shift in acceptance for Muslims in America. Mirza weaves these experiences throughout the narrative, exposing both the glaring and subtle ways families like this one are viewed and treated and how those interactions influence their life. Her renderings of this in particular are eye-opening and accomplished.
All day he had feared his sister might have only called him out of obligation, and suspected that maybe it was that same sense of duty that had brought him back. Now something swelled up in him, not quite excitement or happiness, but a kind of hope. He stood and stepped back toward the music. His sister, surrounded by close friends and family, was asking for him.
The story moves between the narratives of Hadia, Amar and Layla as well as through various scenes from their childhood, or in Layla’s case the years before her children, up through present day. But our story opens at the wedding of Hadia, the oldest sibling, and it is clear that circumstances have strained the relationship between Amar and the rest of his family and the remainder of the story slowly reveals all the ways this came to be.
Amar glared at Huda, then looked to Baba to see if he had reacted. Mumma had stopped eating but she did not look up from her plate. They knew Baba. Knew which of Baba’s faces to not push further, knew that his reaction depended on how stressful his day had been. But Amar never knew when to stop. Hadia wiped her hand on her napkin so she could reach beneath the table to pat him, to warn him before it was too late.
Amar often despises the rules inforced by his parents that were a product of their faith and traditional beliefs and would regularly test the limits of his father’s temper. His sister’s did their best to protect him and his mother loved him fiercely but it is the contemptuous relationship between father and son that contributes to Amar’s struggles. Along side this is the love he shares with a neighborhood girl, Amira who is the sister of his best friend and someone he strives to impress, to shrug off his resistance and to shoulder the responsibilities expected of him. However, at the wedding we learn early on that their love remains unfulfilled and we slowly learn just how so.
Soon they were standing side-by-side. She set a single samosa at the center of her plate. When she opted for the mint sauce, he felt an unexpected sadness at having predicted it. She turned to face him. Her hair fell across her face and formed a curtain over her eye. He wanted to reach out and tuck it back into place behind her ear. But he could not touch her anymore. He signaled to his own forehead, and she, perhaps also remembering how often he would move her hair from her face immediately mirrored him and swept it away. A light color rose to her cheeks. He had missed this. A heavier silence ensued, both now painfully aware they still shared a language they should have long since forgotten.
Beyond the struggles of Amar, we also grow to understand his mother Layla and her story as a young bride who grows into a women and mother and the ways she loves her children and works to bolster their successes while also maintaining the traditional role expected of women in her faith. However, in one touching scene she lets her guard down for a moment at the urging of her son and we see pure joy and pleasure shine through the facade. Hadia is the third narrative and through her character we are able to see the ways expectation are internalized by children and the expression of this in later life as she works hard and lives by the rules her parents set, though rarely receiving the level of praise her brother does. Through her we also see how a young women of the Muslim faith experiences the freedom of adulthood living outside of the home. Lastly, she is the quintessential example of the father-daughter relationship from childhood on through adulthood.
It is these aspects that round out the story, giving a fuller view of this family. However, Amar is the cornerstone of this narrative, and as he grows it becomes clear that he is suffocated by the tradition and expectation of the Muslim faith. When Hadia uncovers one of his deepest secrets, we see how his dissatisfaction and unrest manifest themselves and the tension at her wedding years later becomes quite clear.
He nods and twist his mouth. He looks like a boy afraid, having made a decision he does not know how to execute. He stands in the doorway with his backpack hanging over one shoulder.“If I could make myself change, Hadia, I would. If I could be like you, or Huda, if I had a choice, I would change in an instant.”“I know, Amar.”“I know it is hard for them. But it is hard for me too.”“Maybe it will be easier where you’re going. Or maybe it will get easier for all of us in a few months, or years.”He smiles a little. She does too. And they are quiet again. She can tell he is stalling, that there is something he is trying to find the words for.“You’ll take care of them?” He finally asks.
A Place For Us is a stunning debut that draws the reader in from the very first page. Amar, Hadia, Huda, Layla and Rafiq become more tangible as the story develops and the subtle connections Mirza weaves into each narrative across the years of their lives reinforces the strength of this family despite the myriad ways they appear to withdraw from one another as they grow. Ultimately, it is this individuality that allows the love between them to flourish in its own unique way.
A review copy of this title was provided by Hogarth Books (CrownPublishing).