I have a friend who doesn’t like sad movies. Once, he and I had a debate about the acting-driven film Fences, which I thought was a masterpiece that surely should have won the Oscar for Best Picture that year…but he didn’t like, because it was sad. Well, it sure as fuck wasn’t a happy movie. But damn! It was so real, so life, so raw, and that acting, lawd! I mean…Viola had me about to fight my then boyfriend just off GP. My friend’s response: “I don’t go to the movies to be sad and depressed when I leave.”
If you are one of those people, of whom I’m sure there are many, I can tell you right now that Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us is not going to be your cup of tea. This story is as heartbreaking as it is beautiful. But my, oh my, is it beautiful. The story is told from the various points of view of an Urdu-speaking Indian Muslim family after the parents, whose marriage was arranged, immigrated to the United States and raised their children in a new terrain—but based on old ideas.
There is Rafiq, the father who struggles to instill the Muslim faith he holds dear into his children and to identify with his only son, Amar. There is Layla, who, at every step of the way, has been exactly what she should be as a modest Indian Muslim mother, but still cannot seem to reap the rewards. There is Hadia, the oldest child, who has always done what she should, been what she should, strives for excellence, but still feels as if she is only seen in the rearview. There is Huda, who is honestly almost a bookmark as the middle child in this family, not only in Mirza’s storytelling, but also in the way she is treated by her family. Then, of course, there is the youngest child, Amar, whose inability to connect with the norms of his community and the demands of his faith shape the path of his family and the flow of the story in this brilliant novel.
The book opens at Hadia’s wedding, attended by her entire family, who haven’t all been in the same place together in many years. The reader quickly learns that there is an estrangement in this family due to some rupture with Amar, but throughout the novel we learn that estrangements, particularly this one, don’t erupt all the sudden. If you have any siblings, you will recognize so many aspects of this story. We sometimes feel slighted, less loved, jealous, protective, responsible, full of admiration, resentful. We feel and do many things in the space of our family unit that not only shape who we become, but who our siblings become…and our parents as well.
The reader gets to see the big, but most importantly the little, moments that shape the course of this family. That the family is Indian and Muslim, of a different background than the majority of likely readers, only adds to the texture of the story. We are learning about new people (the characters in this novel can scarcely be referred to solely as characters, because they feel like people to me) in the context of a new culture. In fact, the religion of the “characters” is almost another character in this book, as it fills up so much space and presses on so many outcomes. As it is in life.
Mirza’s A Place for Us is captivating in so many ways, but I think the aspect of this novel that most tethers the readers’ emotions to the movements of the people occupying the story is that we can recognize ourselves in the emotions, decisions, reactions, and statements of the “characters.” No matter how many worlds apart we may be from an Urdu-speaking immigrant family, there is still a place for us in this novel.
This is one of my favorite novels of the year.