[Image description: A book cover. The background is brown. In the middle is a woman in a veil half-covering her face with a hand decorated with henna.]
Author: Shaheen Darr
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★.
Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.
Kismet, A Desi Rhapsody in London is the story of Azra Majid who leaves Pakistan at the age of 14 to settle with relatives in Southall, during the 1970’s. This was when Britain saw an influx of many foreigners. Some came of their own free will while others left their homes because of dictatorial regimes that expelled them with only the clothes on their backs. Located in the West of London, the suburban district of Southall welcomed the newcomers earning the title of little India. It became home to many South Asian communities that included Indians, Pakistanis, Sikhs and Bangladeshis. Join Azra and her relatives, friends, and co-workers as they struggle with misunderstandings, secrets, forbidden and forgotten love. What has their kismet got in store for each one of them. Discover the answers to these intriguing questions and much more in this debut novel by Shaheen Darr.
“Kismet” examines the love lives of about ten characters, and manages to never lose sight of its coherent whole. While the main character is ostensibly Azra Mohammed into her story is woven the tales of her daughter, friends, and acquaintances. Each figure is punctuated by their own motivations, desires, and background. It is quite a feat for any author to work with a cast as large yet manage to have each thread both shine within but also support the complete tapestry.
This is a story that doesn’t concern itself with reaching its resolution quickly. It was instead content to let the characters build from dust to self-contained monoliths. While this slow build benefits the narrative overall as it places the necessary foundations I imagine this is a work for a reader with a little patience. It is however well rewarded as the narratives start to twist with cause and effect.
The results can be perhaps foreseen at times. I don’t want to spoil the plot too much but we have reunions with estranged relatives and cheated lovers. Nevertheless archetypes exist because of their mirrors in real life. None of Darr’s characters feel contrived. Their petty jealousies and desires never feel inexplicable or obnoxious. Even when a character behaves badly we understand why. The overall result is the feeling of dropping in a neighborhood and filled with people we recognize.
I do also want to draw attention to the sensitive portrayal of depression and mental illness. While the character’s decline is triggered by a very stressful event, looking back we can already see the warning signs. The withdrawal from family and feelings of isolation were well into play with the character before she was even exposed to the catalyst for her decline. It’s a subtlety many authors miss when portraying depression. The feelings are not simply feelings of despair, but it’s of being overwhelmed, of no longer being able to interact with other people, of longing for help in the same instant you reject it.
If you’re looking for slice-of-life romance, this is your book. I especially appreciated how the younger generation, while approaching the question of marriage on their own terms, didn’t eschew the wisdom of their elders. It’s a much more realistic portrayal of the actual culture shift than that of the more Western theme of totally eloping and completely cutting times with the disapproving family.
Some may balk at the idea of “kismet” being a governing force in one’s life. Nevertheless as the characters are confronted by their various could-haves, we see that given how unpredictable life is, it’s often a comforting rationalization. We will never know otherwise, so why not call it kismet? Those who are able to release their past get the brightest future.