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Nazneen is born in Bangladesh, the eldest of two sisters, and from the very first page we learn that she is taught to leave things to fate. So when at the age of sixteen her father arranges for her to marry a man over twice her age and move to London to be with her husband, Nazneen accepts it and does what is required. The book covers her life in London from when she moves there in the 1980s, up until the early 2000s. Initially Nazneen cannot speak more than a couple of words of English and so relies on her husband for everything – but it becomes clear that while her husband Chanu is not cruel, he is a pathetic and ineffectual man with big dream and small achievements. He is always just on the verge of something – a new business, a great promotion – but it never actually materialises.

Nazneen forges some friendships, most notably with a lady named Razia, and as she learns to cope in this new country, she also finds strength within herself and ends up falling in love with a young radical, who is at least as unsuitable for her as her husband, if not more so.

I really enjoyed this book, even though it took me a while to read it – but I think it is a book that deserves time and attention. Ali is so observant and so wonderfully descriptive that you really feel immersed in Nazneen’s world, although I could never begin to imagine what her life must feel like. But any reader will certainly recognise the relationships and social politics at work, and the interplay between characters. The book opened my eyes to an immigrant’s experience, and certainly the description of life after September 11th was eye opening, with many people viewing all Muslims with suspicion and hatred. Another surprise was the humour which Ali employs in her descriptions. She has a remarkably funny turn of phrase which made me smile often throughout the story, even when the events described were not funny at all.

A fair part of the book was taken up with letters from Nazneen’s younger sister Hasina, still in Bangladesh, who disgraced her family at a young age by running away to get married to man she chose rather than one who was chosen for her. The marriage didn’t work, but the letters make it clear that Hasina, unlike Nazneen, refused to leave her life to fate and wanted to make her own choices instead, for better or for worse.

I loved the ending of this book – I won’t spoil it for anyone, but I do feel it gave hope for Nazneen’s future. Overall, I would say that while this was the first book I have read by this author, it certainly will not be the last.

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This novel starts off in Bangladesh, when Rashid (aka Ricky) Karim, a 17 year old youth with a promising future, is tricked into marrying Henna Rub, a manipulative and deceitful 13 year old, who sees marriage and subsequent motherhood as a way to escape school.

Years later, their daughter Shona elopes with a Pakistani who her family do not approve of.  Shona and her husband Parvez run away to London, where money is short, but they are convinced that their love will keep them together.  They have twin sons, Omar and Sharif.

As all three generations of the family negotiate their way through life, love and lies, they find themselves seemingly headed on a course to disaster.  Will they ever find a way out of their tangled lives?

This book was a very pleasant surprise.  When I started it, I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it, but I found myself hooked on the story and eager to find out what would happen next.  The tale takes place in London and Bangladesh, and I enjoyed the descriptions of both places.

If there is a main character, it is probably Shona; she is a beautifully drawn character, and so believable.  She is intelligent and compassionate, but also has very human flaws, lying to herself as often as she tries to hide the truth from others.  I liked her very much.  The other characters are also well developed and easy to believe in.

The storyline had some twists and turns, and kept me hooked.  The family soon became ensnared in the tangled web of lies of which they had become part.  I had no idea how things would turn out, and thought that the ending when it came was very satisfying.  There were themes of humour, sadness, anger and love running throughout the story; the title of this book is very apt, as it was certainly bittersweet.

This is the first book I’ve read by Roopa Farooki, but I am certainly going to seek out her other novels.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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