Sophia Khan is a Pakistani-American writer with an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her debut novel titled ‘Yasmeen’ revels in the detail of the everyday environment.
Like its author, the story Yasmeen has a transcontinental setting. The first part is set in a college town in the USA where Yasmeen’s husband and daughter reside; the second part is located in Pakistan.
The story opens in the voice of Irenie, who is Yasmeen’s teenage daughter. Serious and precocious as Irenie is, her behavior is marked by a controlled curiosity. With her mother gone missing, she keeps house, cooks for her father, and tidies his office and the yard with compulsive perfection. Irenie is obsessed with the search for answers to her mother’s disappearance and she links this with questions relating to her own identity.
Despite the pervasive sorrow that Irenie carries within herself, there is a certainty to her character that contrasts with the tentative mannerisms of her father, James.
James Eccles teaches Classical Literature at Crawford College. He is a self-effacing and somewhat clumsy individual. He is well-intentioned but lacks the savviness to successfully manage the complications life throws at him, not least with respect to steering his relationship with his daughter through the crisis of Yasmeen’s disappearance. James also carries the emotional burden of his sister Irene’s premature death by drowning when they were children.
Although James and Irenie share a common sorrow in Yasmeen’s disappearance, they are unable to break down their wall of reserve and – at least on Irenie’s part – suspicion, in order to communicate their grief to one another.
When Irenie discovers a cache of letters exchanged between Yasmeen and an unknown lover, she is consumed with the need for answers. She says, “The secrets of people you know are like dust on a mantle: they quietly build without you ever knowing they exist, but once you know they are there, they are infinitely distracting.” This “infinite distraction” catalyzes her resolve to go to Pakistan in search of answers regarding her mother.
Irenie’s move to Islamabad is a physical as well as a mood shift in the narrative of the novel. From the oppressive silence of the Eccles’ home, Irenie is enveloped in the warmth and bustle of her mother’s extended family. She encounters garrulous relatives and friends who help her piece together the mystery of her mother’s life. The Pakistani sojourn also provides a way forward for James and Irenie to break out of their gloomy impassivity and to renegotiate their relationship following Irenie’s return to the US.
The story in Yasmeen is largely told in Irenie’s first person voice interspersed with a few chapters in which the writing switches to the third person. The writing style is highly descriptive. When James first sees the façade of his college lodging, we are told: “Except for the lion doorknocker suspended anachronistically to the left, the original front of the first storey had been replaced entirely with plate glass.”
When Irenie lands in Islamabad, the landscape she encounters on her drive to her grandparents’ house is presented thus: “Now and again we pass a tent or a goat, but there’s little else to suggest this semi-tamed, in-between land is inhabited. Trees grow haphazard and bushes flower brightly in no apparent order.”
Sophia Khan has tried to do many things in this ambitious first novel. She has used passages from the love letters as epigraphical chapter headings; she has constructed a family saga with time looping backwards and forwards to advance the plot; with respect to Irenie, this novel is also in part a coming-of-age story. To Sophia’s credit, she has succeeded in weaving the strands into a coherent narrative that concerns the certainty of absence and the uncertainty of loss.
‘Yasmeen’ published by Harper Collins Publishers, India, 2015
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