Reviewed by Brenda S. Cox (First published on Jane Austen’s World.)
At the 2022 JASNA AGM, Renata Dennis (head of the JASNA Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee) virtually interviewed author Uzma Jalaluddin. Uzma came across as friendly, passionate, and joyful. As I left the room, I overheard one participant saying, “Uzma seems like someone I could be friends with,” and I felt the same. That session encouraged me to go back and reread Uzma’s novel Ayesha at Last (a variation on Pride and Prejudice), and also to read her newest book, Hana Khan Carries On (a variation on You’ve Got Mail).
In Ayesha at Last, Ayesha is a modern-day Elizabeth Bennet, while Khalid is her Mr. Darcy. Both are from Indian-background Muslim families in Canada, and both have experienced loss and tragedy. Their Muslim community faces challenges, and they try to help, though their ideas don’t always match.
Uzma told us that she wanted to show an “observant” Muslim as a character we could understand and relate to, so she introduced Khalid. (“Observant” here means that he strictly observes the practices of his faith.) Khalid finds his identity in wearing a long white robe, a white skullcap, and a bushy beard. He doesn’t shake women’s hands (sign of a strict Muslim), and tends to judge others, though he treats them with respect. He works hard and does well in his company. But a new boss arrives who is prejudiced against him for his religion and appearance. She looks for excuses to fire him.
Ayesha is a poet, working as a substitute teacher but unhappy with teaching. She wears a purple hijab—traditional, but not. She is also a committed Muslim, but not as strict as Khalid. Sparks fly when they meet. A villain, of course, tries to come between them.
The story is compelling and I found it hard to put down. The characters are well-drawn and interesting. Uzma Jalaluddin gives us insight into a Muslim community in Toronto, Canada, their mosque and community center, and the challenges they face. The novel is a clean read (although there is some discussion of pornography).
In an illuminating online article, Uzma Jalaluddin says,
“I write romance novels.
“That’s not what I set out to do when I first put fingers to keyboard. I wasn’t thinking about genre at all. All I knew was that I wanted to write funny, joyful books about characters I had rarely seen represented on the page; characters who looked like me, and who would bring a different perspective to the traditional love story.
“I write romantic comedies so that I can see my stories represented in the world.”
In Uzma Jaluluddin’s second excellent novel, Hana Khan Carries On, her heroine focuses on the need for “more entertaining stories that represent all of our experiences, not just our pain.” Hana Khan is a budding broadcaster who insists on stories that reflect many dimensions of her Toronto Muslim community, not just tragedies and stereotypes. She asks “The Big Questions: ‘What do you want out of life? What do we owe the people we love? How do our histories and stories influence who we become?” Uzma Jalaluddin says those questions “form the backbone” of all her stories.
Like Jane Austen and all good writers, Uzma Jalauddin gives us three-dimensional characters. We can relate to them on many levels, while also seeing their uniqueness. She entangles them in plots that are fun and compelling to read.
I recommend both Ayesha at Last and Hana Khan Carries On.
Note: Previously I reviewed another excellent Austen variation set in a Muslim community: Soniah Kamal’s Unmarriageable, a Pride and Prejudice retelling set in Pakistan.
In writing about Jane Austen variations with faith, I am glad to include those with other faiths besides Christianity. Jesus told His followers to love one another and to love our neighbors. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, he even defined our neighbor as any other person, including those from other people groups who we might be told are our enemies (as the Jews thought of the Samaritans).
I believe that, in order to love people, we need to listen to them and try to understand them, as well as share our hearts with them when they try to understand us. The best way, of course, is in personal relationships with people whose beliefs are different than ours. Fiction is another possible bridge for understanding. Uzma and Soniah have written stories set in communities they know and love, and we are privileged to be invited into those communities and get to know those people for a time.
How can you make friends with someone from a very different background than yours, and build bridges of understanding?
Brenda S. Cox, author of Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England, also writes at Jane Austen’s World.
3 thoughts on “Book Review: Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin”
Ayesha At Last has been on my wish lists for quite a while and reading this post has me wanting to read it sooner rather than later. Thank you for the review.
You’re welcome, Michelle! I think you’ll enjoy it.
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