Book Review by Brenda S. Cox
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a girl can go from pauper to princess or princess to pauper in the mere seconds it takes for her to accept a proposal.”—Opening of Unmarriageable
Unmarriageable is a delight. Soniah Kamal has taken our beloved Pride and Prejudice and reset it in another country and culture. She kept all the characters and plot lines but reimagined them from a new perspective. The result is witty and wise and very entertaining.
For Soniah’s thoughts on adapting Jane Austen, and the book’s wonderful reception from Janeites, please read my interview with her in Jane Austen’s World.
Unmarriageable gives us many views of Pakistani life and culture. Wedding parties substitute for Austen’s dances and balls as a way for men and women to meet and get to know each other. Alysba, or Alys, and her sister Jena (Elizabeth and Jane) are modern Pakistani women, teaching at the British School of Dilipabad; Darsee is from the family that owns the British Schools (which aren’t actually British). But Alys and Jena are still from a family of five daughters, the Binats, whose income is limited. Their mother desperately wants them all to marry well!
Soniah and I discussed her Muslim faith as it shows up in Unmarriageable. Since there are few obvious mentions of religion in Austen’s novels, she wanted to stay true to that. She hopes this story will be only one of many stories of Pakistani life, showing many different facets of life in Pakistan. So she did not feel that she had to tell us everything about religion in Pakistan in this one book. In her earlier novel, An Isolated Incident, religion played a larger part because of the story she was telling. However, even in Unmarriageable, Islam is a part of her characters’ lives, as Christianity is a part of Austen’s characters’ lives.
The characters in Unmarriageable run the gamut from very religious to very secular. Mari (Mary) is probably the most religious. She is rather self-righteous, like Austen’s Mary. She starts a girls’ club to discuss issues of “religion and its place in [their] lives and the world.” She tries to teach others, both men and women, how to dress and act in conservative Islamic ways. Her father calls her “my Mari, who just wants everyone to go to heaven.”
For other characters, religious practices, including prayer, are mentioned occasionally. Begum Beena dey Bagh (Lady Catherine de Bourgh) has been on the hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) seven times and plans to go again to celebrate her daughter’s improved health. The Quran also plays a part in the story.
Kaleen (Mr. Collins) is somewhat religious, although he is not a clergyman in the novel. Soniah explained to me that in Pakistan, mullahs (called maulvis in Pakistan) are generally from the lower classes, since it is often the poorer children who attend Quranic schools. The Quran is in Arabic, which is not the language of most Pakistanis. Many maulvis work as tutors, going to people’s homes to teach the Quran to children.
If Kaleen had been one of these maulvis, he would have been in too low a social class to propose to Alys (Elizabeth) or marry Sherry (Charlotte). So he is a “physiatrist,” a medical person, instead. He is treating Annie (Anne de Bourgh).
The Quran is important in the dey Bagh household, however. Annie tells Sherry’s parents, “Your daughter is an angel. Ever since she’s arrived, she regularly reads the Quran to me, with excellent Arabic pronunciation. Neither of us understands the language, but just the rhythm is such a balm to my soul.”
Her mother, Beena dey Bagh (Lady Catherine) adds, “It is very good that you people teach your children to recite the Quran by rote in Arabic regardless of whether they understand it or not. Of course, the best thing would be to learn Arabic, and if I ever had the time and inclination, I would be as fluent as any native speaker, possibly even better.” Of course she would!
Soniah told me that, while she herself was taught the Quran in Arabic as a child, she believes it is important to also read it in a language that you understand. She was quite impressed by an exhibition in Atlanta of translations of the Quran into many languages.
The book also includes customs relating to the Quran, such as holding the book over a newly-married or newly-engaged couple’s heads and blessing them. This is a tradition to bring good luck.
The Dupatta and the Burqa
Conservative dress is an issue for some in the novel. Bungles’ (Bingley’s) sisters criticize Alys for walking in the park without wearing a dupatta. The dupatta is a long piece of fabric worn around the head or shoulders for modesty, with traditional Pakistani clothes. Soniah points out that the sisters are hypocritical in saying this, since they themselves wear party clothes which are much more revealing than Alys’ outfit.
The burqa, which is a head to toe black covering, is not traditional Pakistani dress, though some wear it. It comes from Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia. In the book, Alys comments, “Pakistani roots have nothing to do with Saudi burqa, or any Arab culture.”
However, wearing the burqa is a way for Mari to make a religious statement. At the end of the book, Mari “was convinced each day anew that her sisters’ outrageously good fortunes were the result of her piety and prayers. In giving thanks to the Almighty, Mari had taken to wearing a burqa, and whether Lady called her Ninja, or her mother called her Nut Case, or that brother in High Chai hissed, ‘Move it, Crow,’ she couldn’t care less. The entire world was losing its way.” And so she hopes to study advanced Islamic courses and set up her own Islamic school.
Other religious practices are mentioned in passing. Mrs. Binat (Mrs. Bennet), in her frustration at her daughters’ bad kismets, or fates, asks a friend, “How many more times should I read the Quran for their luck to change? How many more wazeefays must I pray? How many more fasts must I keep? How many more manaats must I make? Nothing is working.”
Sherry has a similar approach, but in reverse. In thanks to God, “she promised God a gratitude Hajj, extra prayers for the rest of her life, and even more alms for the poor.”
Soniah explained to me, “A wazeefa is reading a chapter or verse from the Quran in order to bring about a certain goal. For example, you want your kids to excel in their SAT’s, so you might read a wazeefa, a certain verse or chapter, in order to give more prayers and blessings in order to bring about that outcome.
“A manat is a little more superstitious. It’s making a promise to God that you will do this, if that happens. So some people might say I will feed fifty orphans or I will donate this much money or I will stop eating chocolate for a week, etc., if I get an A on this exam, or if I get married to so-and-so, or whatever. It’s just a promise that you make to God that you will do a certain thing if something happens.”
She points out that this is very personal, and individuals may do it quite differently. Soniah adds, “Islam is a very personal one-on-one relationship with God. This whole concept of clergy and mullahs, going through people to get to God, or confessions and stuff, that is really not Islam at all. It’s very personal, you and your relationship with God.”
Christians and Muslims in Pakistan
Since there are a variety of religious groups in Pakistan, Soniah chose to make one of her characters a Christian. Nona Gardenaar, Aly’s aunt (Mrs. Gardiner) is a Christian married to a Muslim. The book says, “Nona’s parents cautioned her that marrying out of one’s religion could be extra-challenging, but having had their say they welcomed the Muslim Nisar.”
Soniah explained to me that such marriages are acceptable in Pakistan “because Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are ‘religions of the book’ and their followers are ‘people of the book.’ As far as Islam is concerned, the Quran is a continuation of the Torah and the Bible, and it’s all the same God, and whether you refer to it as the Christian, biblical God, or Allah, or Yahweh, etc., they are all the same God. So that’s why for Muslims to marry a Christian, it’s really not an issue. It’s preferred they convert to Islam, but not required.”
The Gardenaar family celebrate Christmas together. Soniah says that some Muslim families, though certainly not all, might have a Christmas tree or exchange gifts. And some Christians might also celebrate the Muslim Eid holidays in some way.
She adds, “Islam very much respects and sees Christianity as its own, too. There’s a chapter of Mary in the Quran, Jesus is accepted as a prophet, not the Son of God, which is where the difference comes in, but definitely as a revered prophet, as with Mary, who’s called Maryam in the Quran. So there’s a lot that’s not culturally contentious. Some Muslim families in Pakistan will even celebrate some Hindu holidays, such as Holi, which is the color holiday, but once again it depends on the family.”
I have focused here on areas of faith, but there is much more in Unmarriageable. Soniah explores many other facets of Pakistani life, as well as issues like women’s rights, honor and shame, the influence of literature and education, and the basis for a good marriage. Mostly, though, in my opinion, it’s a fascinating, fun, entertaining story!
I think Soniah has kept to the spirit of Pride and Prejudice, while adding a lot that is new and different. Enjoy!
Caveat: The novel includes some mentions of sex, and a few instances of bad language.
If you were to reimagine one of Austen’s novels in the world you come from or live in, how would it change? What religious or spiritual issues would you want to include, if any? What do you think Austen’s main message is in Pride and Prejudice, that you would want to include? Share your thoughts in the comments, and maybe someone will write the book you are hoping for!
Soniah Kamal’s novel Unmarriageable is a Financial Times Readers’ Best Book of 2019, a 2019 Book All Georgians Should Read, an NPR Code Switch 2019 Summer Read Pick, and is shortlisted for the 2020 Townsend Prize for Fiction. Her debut novel, An Isolated Incident, was a finalist for the KLF French Fiction Prize and the Townsend Prize for Fiction. Soniah’s TEDx talk is about second chances. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian,BuzzFeed, Catapult, the Normal School, the Georgia Review, and elsewhere. twitter & instagram: @soniahkamal www.soniahkamal.com
Unmarriageable: Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan, a Novel, is available from Penguin Random House. Now in paperback, as well as hardback and ebook.
A New York Public Library Summer 2019 Reads Pick
BookBub A 2019 Best Book
Library Reads Pick (January 2019)
STARRED Review Publishers Weekly “must-read for devout Austenites.”
STARRED Review Shelf Awareness “If Jane Austen lived in modern-day Pakistan, this is the version of Pride and Prejudice she might have written”
STARRED Review Library Journal “enlightening and entertaining“