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A Place for Us

Review

A Place for Us

From debut author Fatima Farheen Mirza comes A PLACE FOR US, a hauntingly beautiful and poignant story of identity, belonging and perception. This first novel from Sarah Jessica Parker's new imprint, SJP for Hogarth, is as timely as it is stunning, and is the perfect launch for an imprint designed to celebrate literary fiction titles that will resonate with all readers, regardless of race, gender or experience.

We enter A PLACE FOR US at the wedding of Hadia, the eldest child of Layla and Rafiq, an Indian-American Muslim family. Though the family is clearly very traditional, Hadia’s wedding is remarkable for two reasons: first, she has married for love rather than through arrangement, and second, the wedding marks the family’s reunion with their youngest son, Amar, who has been estranged for three years. In short but powerful vignettes through the eyes of Hadia, Layla and Amar, Mirza tracks the family’s life, focusing on moments both crucial and minute, painting a stunning portrait of a family forced to reconcile their pasts with their present.

Although A PLACE FOR US opens at Hadia’s wedding, it is Amar who first captures readers’ hearts. He is instantly endearing; stoic, deliberate and self-aware, he is immediately someone you want to protect. As he navigates the small talk and judgment he receives from Hadia’s wedding guests, all of whom want to know where he has been for three years, it becomes clear that there is a darkness to him to which we are not yet privy. His wandering gaze, which consistently draws him to the hotel bar, suggests an addictive personality of some sort, but there is far more nuance here and plenty of secrets waiting to be uncovered.

"...a hauntingly beautiful and poignant story of identity, belonging and perception.... The themes explored in A PLACE FOR US are so gut-wrenching and powerful that I cannot see any reader finishing it with a dry eye."

Meanwhile, across the room, we see Amar through his mother’s eyes. Layla’s love for Amar is tangible, leaping off the page in Mirza’s exceedingly careful and compassionate hands. Still, she is a bit terrified of Amar and his unpredictability, particularly when it comes to his relationship with Rafiq, who is painted as the enforcer of the family. In trying to explain Amar’s distance, the book unfolds almost like a mystery at first, yet the tension does not come from dropped clues and dark shadows, but from Mirza’s deft pacing and nearly romantic writing style. No word is chosen without care, and although the story pulls you in, it is Mirza’s writing that compels you to stay.

So what causes a traditional Indian-American family living the American dream to fracture and separate so tragically? In flashbacks through the eyes of Hadia, Amar and Layla, we see that Amar has long struggled to find his place within the family. The story of first generation children of immigrants struggling with integration is not new, but Amar has also grappled with deliberations of faith, masculinity and outside influences for longer than he can remember. At the same time, Hadia and Huda have long suffered the pains of being raised in a traditionally patriarchal culture. They have always felt that Amar took up all of their parents’ attention, and the resentment --- along with the love --- is palpable. Mirza really explores the idea of perception here, and the ways that Layla and Rafiq’s children see themselves are harshly compared to how others see them, often with painful and eye-opening results.

As Mirza reveals to readers the numerous events that led to Amar’s estrangement, she introduces a family torn between tradition, faith and the realities of the outside world. While Rafiq, who proposed to Layla before ever meeting her, has always lived staunchly within the confines of his faith, Layla presents a more relaxed yet still deeply respectful type of personality. She wavers in the upholdings of her beliefs when they do not align with her love for her children, and her journey as a mother is one of the strongest elements of A PLACE FOR US. She will do anything for them, and although her actions are questionable at times, her motivations are as pure-hearted as they can be, making her relationship with them --- especially Amar --- fraught with tension, adoration and fear.

Because the timeline of A PLACE FOR US is not linear, it is difficult to sum up an accurate plotline, and some may be initially turned away by this format. Still, I urge all readers to push through that confusion, with the promise that the voices soon become so distinct and the viewpoints so informed that the story is able to emerge as a living, breathing thing. This is a difficult style for most authors, and the fact that Mirza is only 26 makes this novel a true achievement and testament to her talent. Whether you are the black sheep of your family, the glue or anyone in between, you will no doubt see yourself --- and all of your mistakes and achievements --- on the pages of this outstanding book.

If you are already itching to know what exactly forced Amar to flee the family he has known and loved his entire life, and what pulled him back to Hadia’s wedding, rest assured that Mirza ends her novel on a satisfying and deeply impactful note, with no plotline left gaping and no character left unchanged. The themes explored in A PLACE FOR US are so gut-wrenching and powerful that I cannot see any reader finishing it with a dry eye. The book will tear you up and force you to confront your own feelings on a multitude of difficult topics. But it is one that you simply must read, for Mirza has truly given the world a gift, and it would be a huge mistake to ignore it.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on July 20, 2018

A Place for Us
by Fatima Farheen Mirza

  • Publication Date: June 12, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: SJP for Hogarth
  • ISBN-10: 1524763551
  • ISBN-13: 9781524763558