Broken Verses, by Kamila Shamsie

>> Friday, June 15, 2018

TITLE: Broken Verses
AUTHOR: Kamila Shamsie

PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Mariner Books

SETTING: Pakistan, early 2000s
TYPE: Fiction

Fourteen years ago, famous Pakistani activist Samina Akram disappeared. Two years earlier, her lover, Pakistan's greatest poet, was beaten to death by government thugs. In present-day Karachi, her daughter Aasmaani has just discovered a letter in the couple's private code—a letter that could only have been written recently.

Aasmaani is thirty, single, drifting from job to job. Always left behind whenever Samina followed the Poet into exile, she had assumed that her mother's disappearance was simply another abandonment. Then, while working at Pakistan's first independent TV station, Aasmaani runs into an old friend of Samina's who gives her the first letter, then many more. Where could the letters have come from? And will they lead her to her mother?

Merging the personal with the political, Broken Verses is at once a sharp, thrilling journey through modern-day Pakistan, a carefully coded mystery, and an intimate mother-daughter story that asks how we forgive a mother who leaves.
Oops, I timed my last post badly, as immediately afterwards I had visitors staying at mine, so all plans to post reviews went out the window! But ready now.  Anyway, I was a bit too busy to do a top reads of 2017 post at the end of last year, but if I'd done one, Kamila Shamsie's latest, Home Fire, would have been right at the top. So obviously, I went and bought all her backlist. It's not a hugely long list, but it's satisfyingly substantial and there's a fair bit of variety there. Her books go all over the world and several of them are historical novels. But having loved Home Fire so much, I fancied something a bit closer to that experience, so I chose to start with the one that seemed more like it.

Broken Verses is set in Karachi, Pakistan in the early 2000s. Aasmani is a young woman who grew up in the midst of much drama. Her mother, Samina, was a famous feminist activist. Not long after Aasmani's birth she left her husband, Aasmani's father, to live with her lover. He was just as famous as she was, a man considered to be Pakistan's greatest poet (and that's what he's often called all through the novel: 'The Poet').

Aasmani grew up as a bit of a fifth wheel in their tempestuous love affair and lives which were made even more chaotic by external events. Both Samina and the Poet were seen as troublesome by successive governments, and there was a constant cycle of prison and exile, both of which resulted in Aasmani being left behind and then reunited with her mother and stepfather. And then, as a teenager, she's left behind for good. The Poet is killed by the government, and a couple of years later, her mother disappears.

As the book starts, Aasmani is 30 and still living an unsettled life. When she leaves a cushy job at the state oil company to start working at a trendy and hip new TV company, she comes across an old friend of her mother and stepfather's. This woman is just as famous as they were, Pakistan's greatest actress, who retired many years ago and is now making a comeback in a series for Aasmina's TV company. This is mostly as a result of her son working there, and he pays as much attention to Aasmina as his mother does.

And then, through them, Aasmina receives a mysterious letter. It's written in code, but it's one she happens to know. It's a private code that her mother and the Poet used to use when writing to each other. Between that and some of the very private things mentioned in the letter, Aasmina is sure that the letters must be written by the Poet. But the shocking thing is that some of the content makes it clear the letters must have been written after the Poet's supposed death.

I enjoyed this. Aasmina was a bit of a non-entity as a character, but that was the whole point. This is a woman who always felt she came second to others, that she wasn't enough for her mother to want to stay, or even to want to live. She has allowed herself to be defined by that. To herself, she's a person who gets abandoned, and that's pretty much all there is to it. On one hand, this made for a character I wasn't that interested in, but on the other, it is an understandable reaction and I liked seeing her grow out of her passive role. And it made it all the sweeter when the focus moved to the loving relationship between Aasmani and her father and stepmother. They were always the unexciting, dependable ones (anyone would, compared to Samina and the Poet), so it was nice to see their steadfastness appreciated.

The mystery at the heart of the plot regarding the mysterious letters was well done. It kept me interested, and I thought the resolution made sense. Also, I really liked the letters themselves. They are written in a very strong, distinct voice, and they succeeded in making me understand why Aasmani loved the Poet, a man one would forgive her for resenting.

I also really enjoyed the setting, particularly the look back at the tumultous 80s and what was going on in Pakistan then. It was something I really knew very little about. But you know what? I also really liked seeing Pakistan in the present-day sections. I've seen reviews where people complain about this not being "the real Pakistan", meaning, I'm guessing, that it's about upper-middle/upper class people, so too similar to a Western lifestyle and therefore not authentic. Well, it worked for me, maybe because it's one of the very few times where I've read about an experience that seems familiar from my childhood. I too grew up in an upper-middle class family in a developing country, and most of what I read is either about many different social classes in developed countries, or about poor people in developing countries. I enjoy reading all of that, but there's a special pleasure in seeing your own personal experience reflected. I don't need it that often, but a little bit more often than this would be fun. The last book where I identified with the experience was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, and that was quite a while ago!



Darlynne 31 July 2018 at 18:25  

Hi! So good to see you back. I had been checking in for a while and then lost track. Your review of this book is great, so I've put both books on hold at my library. I look forward to catching up with your other reviews. Thanks!

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