Rare Red Roses
- Musharraf Ali Farooqi (Author)
The Story of a Widow. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Summer Pervez
The most distinctive feature of Musharraf Ali Farooqi's debut novel is his remarkably realist style of writing, reminiscent of Chekhov, with its detached and non-judgmental narrator, intense realism on a small social canvas, and heavy use of sensual detail. Like the work of the master Russian storyteller, Farooqi's novel also lacks political discussion; nor does the writer attempt to convey any large national messages. He does, however, offer a subtle social critique of prohibitions on widow remarriage, and of the different cultural standards for men and women that Mona and Salamat Ali staunchly defy: that widowers should remarry only virgins, and widows not remarry at all.
As a woman of fifty who has recently lost her husband, Mona finds that her decision to remarry is immediately met with grave resistance from her family. Despite her family's and society's objections, she learns over the course of one year to take life into her own hands and awakens into a newfound sense of self at multiple levels-not only sexual, but also maternal, filial, and financial. But while the novel ostensibly centres on this theme of female awakening, or discovering the independent self, it is also about the relationship between mothers and daughters, and a wife's duty to preserve both her husband's and family's honour.
The novel is immediately perceivable as a very Pakistani story, with the simultaneous feel of a Victorian novel. This may be due to the noteworthy parallels between Pakistani drama serials and Victorian novels: unconsciously, they reflect one another. At the level of detail, Mrs. Baig's hiding of letters under the folds of her sari is reminiscent of Victorian women smuggling letters within the folds of voluminous dresses. At a another level, there are also strong thematic parallels: the crises are at once psychological and social, and maintaining image and reputation at any cost is essential. Farooqi's story is ultimately a domestic one, with marriage as the central theme around which the main character's crisis revolves. Like the serials, scenes outside the domestic are shopping or office scenes; male and female spaces are clearly demarcated, as they are in contemporary Pakistan. In this sense, it is a very Pakistani novel, rich in symbolism: a Banarasi sari, gold jewellery (a nau ratan necklace), a family portrait, a carefully tended garden, and lunching at Chinese restaurants with "continental" dessert menus. In fact, the novel is full of memorable imagery, such as the rare red roses in Mona's garden and on Salamat Ali's balcony, and moments of "gentle" humour, both of which linger in the mind long after one has finished reading.
Although Farooqi develops character psychology well and employs powerful imagery, his intense focus on interiority and attentiveness to symbolism is at the expense of a sharp sense of location or place, which could be articulated in more detail. The result is a novel that is almost too universal-there is nothing distinctly Canadian about it.
At the same time, however, Farooqi's novel is innovative in the context of South Asian Canadian literature, for it is the world of Pakistani Muslims-previously unrepresented in the genre-that is depicted. The novel also differs thematically from mainstream Asian Canadian novels: it is not a nostalgic story about the lost homeland, or the political and social tensions left behind (as with Vassanji's Africa, Mistry's Bombay, or Selvadurai's Sri Lanka), nor is it an exploration of migration and the identity crisis that results (as depicted by Mootoo, Baldwin, and Badami). This difference can be regarded as one of the novel's many strengths: it is not what one would expect from a young "immigrant" writer from Toronto.
Along with his unexpected thematic focus, Farooqi's refreshingly direct and symbolic use of language marks him as a unique voice in Canadian literature. Ultimately, The Story of a Widow is a simple but powerful novel about ordinary people set in a local context, but allows for universal access due to the global relevance of its themes.
- Vital Fictions by Dawn Thompson
Books reviewed: Vital Signs: New Women Writers in Canada by Diane Schoemperlen, What's True, Darling by M.A.C. Farrant, and The Wanderer by Phyllis Aronoff and Regine Robin
- What Is It That Happened? by Héliane Ventura
Books reviewed: The Penguin Book of Contemporary Canadian Women's Short Stories by Lisa Moore
- Private Lives of Girls and Women by Laurie McNeill
Books reviewed: Small Details of Life: Twenty Diaries by Women in Canada, 1830-1996 by Kathryn Carter
- Women Who Roughed It by Janice Fiamengo
Books reviewed: A Gentlewoman in Upper Canada: The Journals, Letters and Art of Anne Langton by Barbara Williams and Marie-Anne: The Extraordinary Life of Louis Riel's Grandmother by Maggie Siggins
- Maternal Transformations by Adrienne Kertzer
Books reviewed: Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood by Shannon Cowan, Fiona Lam, and Cathy Stonehouse and Becoming My Mother's Daughter:: A Story of Survival and Renewal by Erika Gottlieb
MLA: Farooqi, Musharraf Ali and Pervez, Summer. Rare Red Roses. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #202 (Autumn 2009), Sport and the Athletic Body. (pg. 109 - 110)
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