Punjab in 1947, and Asha and her best friend, Nargis, are seventeen and still at school. Although Asha is a Hindu and Nargis Muslim, religious differences cannot sour their friendship, nor the goodwill between their families living in neighbouring houses in a comfortable part of town. The girls take part in each other’s traditions, such as fasting alongside the older women to safeguard their future husbands’ well-being. Unusually in a culture in which marriages are usually arranged by the parents, Asha has already chosen her husband in the form of her friend’s older brother, Firoze. What could possibly come between them? Firoze likes her, and her parents like Firoze; in fact, he’s her beloved father’s protégé in his law firm.
As with any successful historical novel, Where the River Parts reflects not only the big events, but the preoccupations of ordinary life, particularly in the vanity and superficiality of the girls as Asha helps Nargis prepare her trousseau. Tension is increased through the reader’s knowledge of the calamity waiting around the corner which the characters continually play down, reminding me of Naomi Alderman’s quote about Jewishness.
However, being already familiar with the history, I’d have liked it to delve a bit deeper. Although, contradictory as ever, I’m prone to complaining about an overdose of horror, I felt this author was a little overprotective of the reader, particularly in that the characters we get close to are overwhelmingly decent chaps, distancing us from the violence in which another writer might make us feel complicit.
Congratulations Radhika Swarup on a very readable debut novel, and thanks to Sandstone Press for my review copy. Do follow the other stopping-off points on the blog tour check out what other readers have to say.
Like the Holocaust, like the Armenian genocide addressed in another novel by the same publisher, like Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and the American Civil War, the capacity for neighbour to turn against neighbour is a frightening one that’s hard for us to get our heads round. While the non-fiction book The Social Brain successfully persuades me that cooperation around diversity is part of our make-up, I don’t think it manages to explain the circumstances which trigger a cooperative relationship breaking down. Perhaps this is still the territory of fiction. What do you think?