The last time I reviewed a book of Kamila Shamsie’s (Burnt Shadows), I admitted that it was the first of hers I had read, and ended by saying that I hoped she wasn’t Pakistan’s most overrated writer. On reading Broken Verses, my first impressions were proven entirely correct. I challenge anyone to present me with a more overrated Pakistani writer than her—they may exist, I have not read as many Pakistani authors as Indian ones, so recognise that my field of reference is somewhat narrow, and I may be proven mistaken on that point—but I will not change my opinion that Shamsie is a truly mediocre novelist.
Broken Verses cannot decide whether it is literary fiction or pop fiction, and herein lies one of its biggest flaws. I believe it is the latter masquerading as the former, and because it throws in some political themes, may have fooled some readers into thinking so, too. Though not usually a fan of pop fiction, I concede that it has its values and uses, so it is not inherent literary snobbery that makes me say such things. So why should this generic confusion bother me so much? For the same reasons that Burnt Shadows did—Shamsie does not so much use her literature as social and political critique (that alone would be worthwhile), as use her convoluted and ridiculous plots as vehicles for some very important said critique, thus belittling and diminishing it. It’s not that she can’t write exactly, it’s just that her writing could have been put to better use in journalism, where she could have reported on other peoples’ realities, instead of coming up with bizarre ones of her own.
Take the title, Broken Verses—each time I typed that so far I have had to triple-check to make sure I hadn’t actually written Burnt Shadows, the title of Shamsie’s other book about destruction, mystery, secrets and so on. I’m terrible at coming up with titles myself, and fear my thesis is going to end up either with something staid and academically boring, or metaphoric and a little bit silly, to make me cringe in a year’s time. But surely as a novelist, or the editor/publisher of a novel, a title is extremely important? You cannot afford for readers to confuse one book with another. Unless, of course, you’re emulating John Grisham (which brings me back to the pop fiction thing…)
The protagonist of Broken Verses is Aasmani, an independent young woman from Karachi. Her mother was a well-known, fearless, glamorous journalist, who disappeared (presumed suicide) two years after her long-time lover, the Poet, also disappeared (presumed killed by the Pakistani government). Aasmani begins a new job, and shortly after receives a letter in a secret code that only she, her mother, and the Poet knew. More and more letters arrive, leading Aasmani to believe that the Poet is still alive, and if he is still alive, what about her mother? Needless to say, things don’t quite work out as Aasmani fantasises. At the heart of all this mystery is plenty of commentary on what it means, ideally and realistically, to be a woman in contemporary Pakistan, in the form of monologues like the following:
“When I was twelve and Mama was at the forefront of political activism with the Women’s Action Forum, the mother of one of my friends said I mustn’t be angry with my mother for getting thrown in jail when she should have stayed at home and looked after me; after all, the woman said, she was doubtless just doing it because she thought she could make the world a better place for me. I looked at the woman in contempt and told her I didn’t have to invent excuses or justifications for my mother’s courage, and how dare she suggest that a woman’s actions were only of value if they could be linked to maternal instincts. At twelve, I knew exactly how the world worked and I thought that by knowing it I could free myself of the world’s ability to grind people down with the relentlessness of its notions of what was acceptable behaviour in women.” (p. 254)
These are sentiments I would be inclined to sympathise with if they were aired in a different format than the mystery novel. There is no innate reason why a mystery novel with social and political commentary of this sort should not work, but Shamsie just fails to bring the strands together in a believable, satisfying, or pleasing synthesis.