It is a truth universally acknowledged that when a family’s fortune is destroyed by scandal and rumour, they must look to their daughters to marry well.
Alys Binat, however, loves life as it is: teaching English literature and encouraging her female students to aspire to more than society expects of them. She is resolute: she will not marry.
However, her mother thinks differently and when the family receive an invite to a big wedding, Mrs Binat immediately coaches her daughters to snag rich, eligible bachelors. There, Alys’s eldest sister, Jena, catches the eye of Fahad ‘Bungles’ Bingla, a successful entrepreneur, but Alys is irked when she overhears Bungles’ friend Valentine Darsee’s snobbish assessment of her. As the festivities unfold, the Binats hold their breath, waiting to see if Bungles will propose. And Alys realises that Darsee’s apparent rudeness and contempt may conceal a different man from the one she first judged him to be.
An essential guide to marriage, class and sisterhood in modern-day Pakistan.
Two bonus reviews in one day, aren’t I spoiling you all? The truth is I’m having a quiet weekend, because I’m having a bad mental health week (month, season, whatever) and I’m doing what I always do when I feel awful, taking refuge in words, in books, in stories, real or imagined. Susie at Allison & Busby sent me this novel late last year, and as it was published on Tuesday, and I love Pride & Prejudice this one was getting read.
The Binat family were wealthy until Barket Binat has his share of the family money and businesses stolen from him by his older brother in 2000. Left with only the crumbling Binat House in a small rural town of Dalipabad, one shop in Lahore and a very loyal servant, the eldest Binat daughters, are forced to give up their university education and move in with their parents. While their father falls into depression and their mother mourns everything she’d gained by marrying up then lost because of a duplicitous brother in law and his snobbish, jealous wife, Jena and Alysba become teachers at an local English-language school for girls. Jena is loved by students and teachers but Alys keeps getting into trouble with the principal and parents for giving the girls ideas about life beyond marriage and motherhood. After ten years at the school, and reaching thirty, she’s a massive disappointment to her mother, Jena at 31 even more so.
And then they get an invitation to an ex-student’s wedding, the biggest shindig in Dalipabad for years. Mrs Binat is determined they’ll all go and sets about spending money on new outfits, courtesy of a local tailor, and fake jewellery that looks just like the real thing, also courtesy of a local tradesman. Of course, Jena Binat, like her literary inspiration Jane Bennett turns heads with her elegance and beauty, and particularly one ‘Bungles’ Bingla, a wealthy businessman, who with his sisters set up a sanitary napkin and adult nappy company. Their friend Val Darcee is also there as a friend of the groom.
You know how it goes from there, because you’ve read the original, or you’ve seen the BBC series from 1996. It’s actually referenced quite often, because Alys loves Austen and teaches English Literature for a living. I enjoyed the literary arguments between Alys and Darsee, the way they’re silently judging Hammie and Sammie Bingla as they try to pretend they’ve read the same books because Hammie wants Darsee to marry her, the way she tries to stimulate her students to think about things from a different perspective. I like the characterisation of Mr and Mrs Bingla, they’re like the originals but also not like them. That applies to all the characters.
The setting is rich and imaginatively descriptive. Never been to Pakistan but my gods was my stomach rumbling when Kamal described the food, and I could see the border ceremony Alys attends with Wickaam, in all it’s jingoistic, over the top glory. As Jane Austen gently poked fun at the social mores of her day and class, Soniah Kamal skewers the social constraints on women in modern-day Pakistan with a witty eye.
I really enjoyed this modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice and it is going on the shelf with my three copies of the original.