Asghar and Zahra by Sameer Rahim
Asghar thinks he’s been in love with Zahra since childhood, so sees no reason not to propose after two chaste but unchaperoned ‘dates’. Slightly older, and more worldly, having been away to university in Cambridge, she is shocked by his offer, having perceived their meetings as a catch-up between old friends. But, on the rebound from a relationship with a fellow student, a Hindu, who took things too far for her liking, Zahra accepts, believing that Asghar will keep her safely tied to the community, while allowing her the freedoms her education, and her job in corporate banking, have led her to expect.
A few weeks in, they’re both still virgins, but it’s the ideological differences, in their interpretations of Islam, that push them apart. On honeymoon in Granada, Asghar is hurt by the airbrushing of Islam out of the city’s history (the origins of which I read about in Court of Lions), his outrage further enflamed by a charismatic character they meet at the mosque. (I got quite excited about the Granada mosque, as I’m sure my friend who lives there attended an open day when it first opened.) When the relationship continues back in London, the reader wonders if he might be heading towards becoming a ‘fundo’, as Zahra would call it. (See Godsend by John Wray for a fictional ‘fundo’.)
But Sameer Rahim’s novel, like Leila Aboulela’s Bird Summons, is about ordinary tensions within British Muslim communities and, in this case, more of a coming-of-age story. Thanks to John Murray for my review copy.
Snegurochka by Judith Heneghan
They’ve arrived in Ukraine too late for the big news stories: it’s two and a half years since independence and six since the Chernobyl explosion. While Lucas hares after ever elusive leads, Rachel steers the pushchair over frozen cobbles to forage for essentials from unfamiliar shops. Isolated by her lack of knowledge of language or customs, and the apparent disapproval of the locals, she develops compulsive rituals and obsessions to keep her baby safe. Unfortunately, the tentative friendship she develops is with a racketeer’s trophy wife, while the suave gentleman who seemingly wants to help her is even more of a crook.
Judith Heneghan paints a compassionate portrait of a young woman gripped by anxieties in an alien land. If only her mother, back in England, weren’t so critical. If only her husband weren’t so ambitious for his career. The novel’s tension lies in whether Rachel is under or overestimating the danger, and whether the marriage will survive. The claustrophobia and exhaustion of new motherhood echoes the pathos of a country in recovery from a traumatic past. An absorbing read: thanks to Salt for my review copy.
For another novel set in Ukraine, see my review of A Boy in Winter.
Would therapy have helped sustain either of these marriages? Perhaps, although couple counselling is relatively rare in fiction, as I point out in my recent post for the Counsellors Café. But entertaining the possibility fixed one of my dilemmas: how could I compose a 99-word story about making a big splash? Click on the image for more about this prompt.
Laying the printed sheet on the table, she smooths out the creases. “Sorry about your questionnaire.”
“Butterfingers splashed red wine on it,” he says.
Quite a splash. The pink colour-wash obscures half the words.
“He jogged my arm.”
“She hogged the remote.”
“My programme hadn’t finished.”
“She knew kick-off was at eight.”
“Who’d watch football on his wedding anniversary?”
“May I interrupt you a moment?”
They look up like naughty children. “Give us another,” he says. “I won’t let her mess it up again.”
“No need.” I toss the questionnaire in the bin. “We’ve plenty to work on already.”
There’s a young marriage under strain in “Rebekah’s Foreskin”, one of the stories in my collection on the theme of identity, Becoming Someone. There are a few older marriages in trouble too, such as “Four Hail Marys”; you can watch me read the opening here: