Review: A Place For Us – a tender and promising debut about a fractured family

A Place For Us is Fatima Farheen Mirza's first novel, and the first to be commissioned by Sarah Jess

A Place For Us is Fatima Farheen Mirza's first novel, and the first to be commissioned by Sarah Jessica Parker for Hogarth Press. Picture: Penguin Random House - Credit: Archant

Identity, belonging and connection are explored with tenderness in this promising debut novel by Fatima Farheen Mirza – the first to be commissioned for Sarah Jessica Parker's new imprint with Hogarth Press.

A Place For Us by debut novelist Fatima Farheen Mirza is the first novel to be commissioned by Sarah Jessica Parker in her new role at Hogarth Press, and at first I must confess that I was dubious. Hearing SJP in the name, I expected a romance novel worthy of Sex and the City screen-time – and I was wrong to. Instead I got a meandering, warts-and-all family saga that questions more than it tells.

The novel opens with the wedding of Hadia, eldest daughter to an Indian Muslim American family who has broken tradition and chosen love for the sake of love. But as the family gather to celebrate the nuptials, there is only one question on their minds - will Amar, the estranged younger brother of the bride, return to the family and behave after a three year absence?

Past cradles present as the wedding day unfolds, and the narrative follows several different characters through key moments in their life - a forbidden romance, an untimely death and a racist attack which is poignant, though brutal, in post-9/11 America. Varying degrees of betrayal are exposed only to be brushed aside - from parents Layla and Rafiq's migration to America to the secrets their children have kept as they straddle two cultural identities.

Throughout, the timeline seems clumsy, disordered and mismatched and it can be difficult to work out just how everything fits together. But this allows Mirza the opportunity to subtly capture the essence of what it is like to grow up in a big family, where a shared experience can make it difficult to forge your own path.

And so the novel's structure mimics the family. It is Huda, the middle-child, who is most overlooked, barely explored on the pages as she absorbs the aftershocks of her fractured family. It is Rafiq, the family's domineering patriarch, who is given the final words - 80 or so pages full of tenderness and love, detailing his rift with Amar.

Overall, this is not a novel driven by plot but by people, both on and off the page. Mirza's promising ability to observe the intimacies of a family at work is reminiscent of early Zadie Smith, and the powerful themes of identity, belonging, connection and betrayal transcend the page, leaving you with just enough space, and encouragement, to reflect on your own family ties.

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About the author:

A Place For Us is Fatima Farheen Mirza's first novel. Born in 1991, she grew up in California and is an alumni of the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop.

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