A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

Hardcover, 385 pages
Published June 12th 2018 by SJP for Hogarth

The first novel from Sarah Jessica Parker’s new imprint, SJP for Hogarth, A Place for Us is a deeply moving and resonant story of love, identity and belonging

A Place for Us unfolds the lives of an Indian-American Muslim family, gathered together in their Californian hometown to celebrate the eldest daughter, Hadia’s, wedding – a match of love rather than tradition. It is here, on this momentous day, that Amar, the youngest of the siblings, reunites with his family for the first time in three years. Rafiq and Layla must now contend with the choices and betrayals that lead to their son’s estrangement – the reckoning of parents who strove to pass on their cultures and traditions to their children; and of children who in turn struggle to balance authenticity in themselves with loyalty to the home they came from.

In a narrative that spans decades and sees family life through the eyes of each member, A Place For Us charts the crucial moments in the family’s past, from the bonds that bring them together to the differences that pull them apart. And as siblings Hadia, Huda, and Amar attempt to carve out a life for themselves, they must reconcile their present culture with their parent’s faith, to tread a path between the old world and the new, and learn how the smallest decisions can lead to the deepest of betrayals.

A deeply affecting and resonant story, A Place for Us is truly a book for our times: a moving portrait of what it means to be an American family today, a novel of love, identity and belonging that eloquently examines what it means to be both American and Muslim — and announces Fatima Farheen Mirza as a major new literary talent.

How were they to know the moment that would define them? It will affect his personality for his whole life, someone is saying to her, and whose fault will it be then? Mine, a voice replies, and the voice is hers…What had she done to her brother, so that she could survive, so that she could be the one who thrived?

Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us has been widely celebrated since its release in mid-June. Lauded for the brilliant display of writing found within these pages equally as much as it has been coveted as Sarah Jessica Parker’s first release from her own publishing imprint, SJP for Hogarth, putting on display her own eye for literary fiction. It was a read that built upon itself in a sort of snowball effect: slow and gently vibrating beneath the surface as the foundation was laid then tumbling still gently but faster down the slope. I found myself comparing it to Everything I Never Told You in its elegance of execution and vibrant, meaningful display of first-generation families trying to navigate the complexities of American life, of a culture so unlike their own. This story is told in metaphors and blood ties. It’s told in memories, regrets, hopes and fears. It’s told in a universal language embedded in one specific culture that any reader can see embodied in their own families. Novels like this one remind us that our families are not so strange or cruel or different at their cores. We all speak the same universal language.

There were so many beautiful moments in Mirza’s debut novel—a book written in vignettes of this family’s life like they jumbled together then come back into focus like a stunning glimpse through a kaleidoscope. I won’t give a synopsis here because the one provided is so fiercely accurate, but I will say that there was so much more to the estrangement of the son and brother, Amar, than I had hoped for. At the start of the novel, with no chapter titles or markers for whose POV was coming next, I couldn’t seem to get my bearings enough to plant roots in the narrative and grow with it. But, eventually, I found my way and moved with the story faster and faster as it picked up speed. The vignettes were light as a gentle breeze softly lifting a lock of hair, like whispers in your ear. And that was lovely, sure. But, admittedly, there were times when I found myself looking for something more—a climax, any hint of tangible, startling tension. And when I did find it, I couldn’t hold on to it long enough to feel fully satisfied. Perhaps that was the point of the read–Mirza’s parting message to us, among others–but it left me unfulfilled. Yet, I felt like I got an honest glimpse at a culture I’m unfamiliar with, like I was sitting at their dinner table with them. At the start I didn’t feel fully embedded in the story. But toward the end, I knew I couldn’t get up from that dinner table and walk away.

All of the characters, especially the siblings at the forefront of the narrative–Hadia, Huda and Amar–are so beautifully and delicately rendered and allowed to unfold. They are complete characters–their parents Rafiq and Layla included–set in their ways and flaws and hopes and dreams in a way that grabs our hearts because we understand them; we root for them and believe we know what their next moves would be, what their truest fears are. A Place for Us is a character-driven piece with such fully imagined characters who quietly take up the page. It tied loose ends together with stunning clarity.

I truly loved how embedded in the Hyderabadi culture this novel was. I knew nothing of the culture and traditions—had never even heard the word “Hyderabadi” before—and yet I could feel the resolution with which this family lived in their faith, the effect it had on them, the generations upon generations of history that each of them carried—both in their routines handed down and in their hearts.

If his father had just hit him back, cursed at him, said to Mumma look how despicable our son is, how batamiz, anything—then maybe he could have gone home again. A punishment was a mercy. It marked the end of a sentence. Without one, he could not imagine recovering from his shame. Nor could he forgive himself for giving action to the hatred he had felt for his father, wanting to hurt him the way he had been hurt by him.

There were moments here where Mirza truly brought these characters into focus even from a Western standpoint, painting them at the time of 9/11—their reaction to it and the fear they carried with them not at all unlike our own. The racism they endured; the ignorance others harbored about them. Those moments stung the way they were intended to; they spoke loudly as they needed to. I will say I’m not a huge fan of the book title or the cover, but this was certainly a brilliant debut from both Fatima Farheen Mirza and this new imprint–both of which I’ll be sure to keep a lookout for in the future! Four stars ****

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Fatima Farheen Mirza Fatima Farheen Mirza was born in 1991 and raised in California. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Fellowship.


6 thoughts on “A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

  1. I’m going to read this book with a friend and I cannot wait to get my hands on it now! I was blown away by the description on the cover and now I’m just ready to jump into this world and get lost in a story I anticipate will break my heart in the best way.

    Though this book focuses on the Indian-American experience, it evokes a feeling of strain on family ties that reminds me of a Bollywood film I watched several times during my childhood. It’s called “Khabi Khusi Khabi Gham” and it has a similar theme with a huge focus on family, loyalty, love, and so much more. I have a feeling you might like it since you liked this book. It IS a 3 and a half hour film though, so brace yourself!

    Like

    1. Oh, this is DEFINITELY one of those reads that breaks your heart in good ways, in memorable ways. haha! I will definitely have to brace myself for that one! I love a good long movie if it’s fully immersive, though! Thanks for the recommendation!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. Maybe that was the author’s message to us, that we have to say what we mean while we have the time. I wish we got to learn more about Amar’s life after walking away from the wedding.

      Like

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