Romeo, Juliet and Islam

One of the things I don’t do enough is read outside my own cultural comfort zone. The books that draw me in tend to feature characters whose circumstances are similar in some respects to mine. Reading Priya Basil’s novel The Obscure Logic of the Heart, I realized that this is a serious omission on my part, because it made me think that some of the most exciting new literature coming out at the moment emerges not from the exhausted values of the white, Western world, but from the ideologically-fierce trouble spots in the East. That being said, Basil’s novel begins conventionally enough in London, with the start of a passionate love affair between Lina, a young Muslim woman studying law at university, and Anil, a wealthy Kenyan boy. It’s a real coup de foudre for the young lovers but they are destined to be star-crossed in ways that are exquisitely reminiscent of Shakespeare’s doomed protagonists. Lina is the eldest daughter in a devoutly religious family who live quietly and conventionally in Birmingham; romance with a boy not of her own religious conviction is unthinkable, almost a crime against the forcefully loving wishes of her parents. Anil, by contrast, has no particular religion to speak of although his family is nominally Sikh. If there is a God that matters, its Mammon for his rich and influential parents, who are used to getting what they want by fair means or foul. It’s not that they are particularly lawless, only that Kenya turns out to be one of the most corrupt nations in the world, and to live well is inevitably a matter of nepotism and bribery. In this way, Montagues and Capulets are redrawn for the 21st century, and it’s this utterly convincing conflict of family values that makes for such a compelling narrative.

This isn’t just a domestic love story, however, as Lina starts to work for the UN, and her job takes her into some of the most desolate of situations and opens her mind to some of the terrible ongoing conflicts. Lina’s story is one of innocence cast out into a strife-ridden world. Her upbringing has installed a strong code of morality into her; she works very hard, longs to help and is determined to do good. But it has also left her emotionally immature, compliant, and unable to make her own decisions, fearing the cost of her independence. Anil is trying to make his way as an architect, with an equally honorable desire to create buildings that merge modern methods with traditional materials. To put up the buildings he wants, though, he needs access to his father’s funds, a fact that keeps him more dependent on his family than he cares to realise. His story is one of privilege thwarted – will he learn how to act with grace in situations where he might have to compromise his desires?

To be honest, the show is pretty much stolen by the rich cast of characters who surround the lovers. Both sets of parents are brilliantly drawn, Lina’s parents in particular. The September 11 bombings take place over the course of the story and lead Lina’s mother, Iman, to declare that ‘already Islam was becoming all sorts of things she didn’t recognize: a phenomenon, an accusation, a threat, a weapon, a misunderstanding.’ And yet this comes only half a page away from her trawling the library shelves in an attempt to find a book on parenting that conforms to her disciplinarian view. ‘Most of the books she’d flicked through had advocated letting your children be, allowing them to make their own mistakes. Complete nonsense.’ Iman wants nothing less than complete control over Lina, and Priya Basil shows with great subtlety how this desire may be drawn from religious precepts, but is in fact a pure distillation of Iman’s character. Lina’s aunt is altogether more relaxed about the situation, suggesting that Iman does not trust enough in God if she feels she has to intervene forcefully in Lina’s life. Vying with Lina’s mother for the title of the most disturbing character is Anil’s best friend, Merc, a dangerous, damaged boy whose disapproval of the relationship seems to spring from jealousy and possessiveness, even if he claims he has Anil’s good at heart. His meddling will create all kinds of difficulties and ultimately provoke tragedy.

What’s really on trial in this novel, however, is love, and its tendency to descend into a need to control. Lina and Anil ought by rights to represent its transcendent power, its ability to dissolve the barriers hoist by religion, race and class. And yet, of course, it isn’t long before Lina and Anil are doing their best to control each other in subtle and not so subtle ways, Lina doling out lists of prohibitions that she needs Anil to respect, Anil eventually attempting to force Lina’s hand to get what he wants. Their behaviour is nothing in comparison to that of their parents, who have no compunction whatsoever about using all kinds of emotional blackmail to get the outcome for their children that they desire. Parental love in this narrative is always only a breath away from manipulation and intrusion, and whether the method of control is religion or cash, the parents are convinced that ends justify means. Yet there is no sense that a lack of love is the problem here, no, it is as ever what happens in the name of love that causes the reader to wince, or hold her breath.

I took a bit of a punt on this book as it was outside my usual run of reading, but I absolutely loved it, one of the best reads so far this year. What I admired most was Priya Basil’s ability to weave her themes together seamlessly, making the brutality of the world reverberate in distressing ways in the crucible of passionate love between men and women, between parents and children and between good friends. I felt I’d been given an illuminating glimpse into a part of the world about which I knew nothing, and had been caught up in a powerful story that made me think. This is definitely an author to watch.

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18 thoughts on “Romeo, Juliet and Islam

  1. This sounds like the sort of book I would really enjoy. I like being taken to new places in my reading and reading about the complexities of human relationships is something that I am always keen to do. This author seems to have a great insight into the tangled relationships between parents and children and the challenges one faces when they date outside their culture (and the parents don’t agree). Brilliant review!

  2. I have been trying to read more diversely this year, although that project got put on hold a bit for the summer while I read all kinds of obscure nonfiction I can’t get at home. This sounds really, really good. I have a special category of my TBR list called “That culture thing I like”, which it sounds like this book would fit perfectly into. I love it when books show the meeting of different cultures!

  3. This sounds great – interesting that you still feel it was so outside your comfort zone, LL, even though the Romeo and Juliet framework is obviously anything but unfamiliar. And novels about the fundamentals, like human love in all its wiliness and wonder, really do transcend difference, don’t they, as does lived experience of the Other, who is never so strange after all. This is why I love travelling – both in reality and in reading. We’ve more in common than not – all of us, always.

  4. Wow. This sounds terrific. I love how when reading about people from different cultures, I often find that their concerns are the same as mine at heart. It sounds like these characters’ culture certainly affects their situation and their choices, but at heart, don’t we all struggle with juggling love of parents, lovers, friends, etc.?

  5. I have just added this book to the ever-expanding List (close to the top, however). You make it sound both intriguing and necessary: two important qualities that the critic in your last post seems to have missed. Thank you!

  6. Oh a main character who lives in Birmingham – added. I like the Montague and Capulets structure, because I’m a sucker for star crossed lovers. It just sounds so twinkly and romantic, even though it is generally bloody.

  7. This sounds like a very worthwhile way to spend ones reading time. I probably would not have been tempted by it but for this post, and now I want to get my hands on it. May I ask…where do you find the books you want to read? Bestseller lists are often disappointing and leave me wondering, “Why is this book a best seller?” Is there some other source I should be following?

  8. I’m a completely predictable reader and stay well within my comfort zone most of the time. It’s good to be challenged by ideas outside my own culture–something I need to do more of. I love how you have peeled the layers away yet it still sounds like the basics are the same no matter how differently they are interpreted. I think I’ll have to look for this one!

  9. I’m definitely aware of how little I read outside of my own usual habits and my own culture, but I haven’t quite been able to do much about it. I’m torn between wanting to read more diversely and wanting to feel that reading should be comfortable and fun and not feel like a duty. The trick, I suppose, is to find books like this one, that once I’m into them won’t feel like a chore at all. Interesting review!

  10. Interesting post. I’ve read a few books from the Arab world and find them quite difficult to relate to. I don’t find European values exhausted but often find myself struggling with Middle Eastern thought which seems locked in to endlessly exploring the relationship between Islam and secularism, which gets rather wearing after the first couple of books. I find a similar fatigue when reading people like Marylynne Robinson (Gilead, and Home) who is much praised these days but who’s evangelical presuppositions spoil her writing for me.

  11. What a fantastic review – adding to the TBR list immediately. I tend to do an okay job of reading outside my comfort zone, but not a stellar one – this seems like a wonderful book to stretch a bit with!

  12. I’m intrigued too! I like novels that explore some of the murk of trying to live in the world yet cling to some at least of one’s idealism.

    Anil is an anagram of Lina, do you think that has any significance in the novel?

  13. Stefanie – it really isn’t sad at all in the way R & J is sad. It’s much more…tense, almost, as you wonder whether they will break away from their families or not. As to whether they do or not, I couldn’t possibly say, but I felt the ending was a good, satsifying one.

    Kathleen – thank you! And yes, that’s exactly where the book excels. I felt the family relationships were brilliantly drawn and extremely engaging. I’d love to know what you make of it if you do read it.

    Jenny – I really don’t do this kind of reading enough, but it has encouraged me to read a lot more of exactly that culture thing – I can really see why you like it! (And I’m intrigued by your non-fiction, too!).

    Doctordi – it was purely superficial on my part, the sense that a different culture would involve parameters beyond my understanding. And then it turned out to be about people who were no different at all in many ways. Not really a surprise, when you think about it, only a misconception. I’m really glad I read it and will certainly try and keep up the wider reading now!

    Lilian – I don’t do it enough! I need to do more of this – I loved it.

    GSJR – thank you. It just struck me that these sorts of fierce beliefs really give fiction something to take hold of, and that the West has abandoned so many other sorts of value systems in favour of money as prime value. And that felt like a kind of poverty.

    Teresa – absolutely. I was making an error in thinking it would be so very different. In fact, it was utterly recognisable. In fact, the francophone books I’ve read have been more ‘other’ in their concerns (and I loved them too, so I really should take note of that!).

    ds – I would love to know what you make of it if you get hold of it. It’s well worth a try.

    Jodie – lol! This book manages a great combination of the twinkly and the bloody, and Birmingham! I really felt it deserved points for embracing such unusual psychogeography…. ;)

    Grad – this book was actually offered to me by a publisher. I chose to try it out, but might well have walked by it in a store. So, I struck lucky that time. But I do wander the bookstores a lot, and of course, read a large number of blogs. It’s really thanks to them that I read as widely as I do now. Finding books can be really hard, because it always seems to me that only a handful of publications make it onto the mainstream radar, and that’s very frustrating.

    Danielle – oh I’d love to know what you think of it. Basically, it’s just a really good love story, and once I’d been introduced to the characters, I never thought for a moment about the cultural differences, except to be intrigued by how they worked in. I am shockingly insular in my reading, and will try to do a bit better now!

    Dorothy – exactly! If I realised that so much of narrative is concerned with really basic human issues (and you’d think I might have figured that out by now), I wouldn’t hesitate to read more broadly. I so hear you when you say you feel reading should be relaxing and fun. I feel like that a lot, now I’m not reading all the time for work. But this book certainly didn’t feel like a chore.

    Tom – on the quiet, I completely agree about Marilynne Robinson. I feel really bad that I can’t get on with her work, although to be honest, it’s more the episodic, meandering nature of the narrative that gets to me. Other than this book, the books I’ve read about the Arab world have been in French, and the situations they dwell on are naturally dictated by the problems of the immigrant population, or the Francophone world. Maybe it’s one of the things that happens when we read outside our culture – we see the same issues coming up over and over, but we’re more blind to them within our own culture because they are so deep-rooted?

    Courtney – I have always been very tentative about reading outside my culture, but this book was a great transition. I’d love to know what you think of it – and it’s wonderful to see you blogging again!

    Helen – you’re quite right – the fact that ‘Lina’ and ‘Anil’ are anagrams is woven into the narrative, and seen by the lovers as a sign of their interdependence. And I like what you say about a mixture of murk and idealism. I suppose one begets the other, but it’s a very interesting perspective!

  14. Why is it so hard to read outside our comfort zones? I seldom do, despite the fact that time and again, whenever I make that huge leap, I am almost always thrilled. I will most definitely leap with this one. It sounds terrific.

  15. I really enjoyed this review and you’re reminding me that I should step out of my comfort zone a bit more. It would be interesting, as you say, to read more books not written from a white, western perspective. This one seems to work really well. Thanks.

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