Archive for the ‘Hogarth’ Tag

A Puzzling Title   Leave a comment


Family dynamics, as much as cultural expectations, are at the heart of A Place for Us. Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel follows an Indian-American Muslim family. Years ago, parents Layla and Rafiq left their homes in India to establish a new life in Northern California and raise three children. Their faith determines their lifestyle, much of their social interactions, fashion and appearance.

The story begins the day before Hadia’s wedding. She is the elder sister of Huda and their brother Amar. His presence is both a reason for joy and a cause for concern. He’d been estranged – for reasons which are exhaustively detailed in the subsequent sections/chapters.

Mirza’s narrative moves to the past. First, summarizing Layla and Rafiq’s marriage; then focusing on the children as they grow up. Initially, the focus is on Hadia, but slowly shifts to Amar. Rafiq’s expectations of his daughters are few. Both sisters are obedient, studious and observant of Muslim practices; yet they have dreams and goals beyond what their parents envision.

Amar is intelligent and sensitive, but he struggles in school and questions some Muslim principles. A forbidden romance, a long-troubled relationship with Fariq and more contribute to Amar leaving his family three years prior.

The penultimate chapter returns to the wedding day, which is filled with tension felt by all the characters. In an interesting, and unexpected, change of narrator, the final chapter provides Fariq’s perspective, most notably his love for Amar. Unfortunately, slow pacing and some predictable consequences are the book’s downfall.

A Place for Us
Three Bookmarks
SPJ for Hogarth, 2018
377 pages

Soviet Roulette   Leave a comment

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena


Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vial Phenomena demonstrates that families are often created by need, proximity and shared experiences – sometimes more than bloodlines.

Marra writes of worn-torn Chechnya. More accurately, his story involves the newly-formed family of Akhmed, Havaa and Sonja, three genetically-unrelated characters whose lives intersect because of friendship, obligation and fate.

Moving back and forth between 1994 and 2004, Marra details the poverty and fear of those living in a small Chechen village. Eight-year-old Havaa is rescued by Akhmed, a long-time family friend, when the girl’s father is “disappeared” by military authorities.

Akhmed, a third-rate physician, takes the child to the city hospital 11 kilometers away. There, he convinces Sonja, a surgeon, in charge of the facility to keep Havaa. In exchange, Akhmed offers his medical services, which prove to be lacking.

The novel’s beauty is Marra’s writing. The people and landscape are bleak, and are vividly portrayed. Yet hope surfaces in spite of the harsh conditions. Havaa is optimistic about her father returning; Akhmed hopes he can keep the child safe; and Sonja needs to believe that her younger sister, Natasha, is still alive. Hope also makes cameo appearances when Marra foretells characters’ futures. At first this is done with incidental players, then minor ones and finally those about whom the reader cares most.

Trying to understand the historical context of Chechnya is confusing. Fortunately, Marra’s emphasis is on a handful of characters, each who do what it takes to survive while trying to remain true to themselves.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Four Bookmarks

Hogarth, 2013

384 pages


Whining While Dining   Leave a comment


Most parents, whether with young children or those who remember when their kids were small, are familiar with meals being a time for whining and dining.  Herman Koch’s The Dinner applies the concept at a very different level.

In Amsterdam, where the story takes place, two couples meet one evening at an upscale restaurant. The novel is narrated by Paul who is unhappy about the location, the companionship and, ultimately, the reason for getting together. Paul whines, a lot. He, with his wife, is joined by his brother and sister-in-law. The dining establishment is pretentious and so is his brother, Serge. Paul’s lack of enthusiasm is understandable, although none of Koch’s characters are worth embracing.

Initially, Paul’s attitude seems justified. Serge comes across as shallow, and the food does sound haughty: “The ‘grapes’ were lying beside a deep-purple piece of lettuce, a full two inches of empty plate away from the actual main course — ‘filet of guinea fowl wrapped in paper-thin German bacon.’”

As the novel and meal progress, it’s evident that the story is less about the five courses than about Paul, in addition to his son and nephew. The latter are the impetus for the couple getting together; the parents share a lot of responsibility when it comes to dealing with a criminal act committed by their boys.

By meal’s end, what has been served are layers of rationale that demonstrate how far some parents go to protect their children. Thankfully, there’s no to-go box for this repast.

The Dinner
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Hogarth, 2012
292 pages