REVIEW: Unmarriageable – Soniah Kamal

 

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Author: Soniah Kamal (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Allison & Busby

Genre: Romance, satire, adaptation

When Alys’s family is invited to the wedding of the century in their town, her mother, the indomitable Mrs Binat, excitedly coaches her five unmarried daughters on the art of husband hunting. Alys’s eldest sister Jena quickly catches the eye of a wealthy entrepreneur. But his friend Valentine Darsee doesn’t conceal his unfavourable opinion of the Binat family.

As the days of lavish festivities continue, the Binats wait breathlessly to see if Jena will land a proposal – and Alys realises that Darsee’s brusqueness hides a very different man to the one she judged at first sight.

Look at the cover of this book. You couldn’t miss it, could you? It’s so bright and bold and beautiful. Naturally, this is what first caught my eye, and I think it’s clear why. The fact that this was one of my favourite things – a retelling of Pride and Prejudice –and one set in a different culture which the author is clearly familiar with? I lusted after it for a few months before treating myself to it at the end of July. It was absolutely the perfect book to be reading over the last couple of weekends – I started it on the bank holiday after finishing Space Opera, and polished it off sat in the sunshine on Saturday.

You can tell from the very opening of the book that Kamal knows Pride and Prejudice inside and out, and it opens with a gloriously meta scene where Alys is introducing her new class of high school students to the immortal opening line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” I found this particular quirk a really interesting narrative device. Alys is a lover of books, and literature – particularly English literature, although she struggles with her identity as a victim of British colonialism. She cannot speak Urdu so struggles to find a way to connect directly with any literature from Pakistan, it all comes filtered through a translator. She finds herself uncomfortable with her national identity and how to really find what her culture is. Is it that of Colonial Britain? Mostly, though, I wondered about her clear and deep knowledge of Pride and Prejudice, and her complete lack of awareness that her life was basically mirroring it entirely, down to the similar names of everyone she knows. Often in reimaginings of this novel, the narrative tack is to just ignore that the book even exists, or perhaps maybe slip in one quick mention. Instead, Kamal has Alys be a passionate fan and near-expert in the book, she teaches it every year, but there’s no flicker of irony in Alys’ narrative that she recognises a single similarity.

Kamal mimics Austen’s satirical omniscient narrator, jumping between characters to give viewpoints, although with more control than Crazy Rich Asians which leapt around fairly frenetically. At every step of the way, she shows she knows Pride and Prejudice inside out, and as someone who loves the book this was really wonderful. She was subtle with her changes, but the ones she made were extremely effective for the message she was putting across. Secondary characters were given far more development than Austen granted them – Kitty is given her own character aside from just being Lydia-lite. Anne de Burgh not only gets lines but a personality aside from “pale, sickly and cross”. Georgiana becomes more than a nervous, quiet victim. We get a backstory for Mr and Mrs Binat, a fall from grace, and their love story; and that story explains why Alys is so willing to believe Wickaam when he tells his own tale of familial betrayal and woe.

I found the choice to make Alys, Jena and Sherry (Charlotte) older was an interesting one, and clearly one that is a comment on how women are viewed in Pakistan. We get much more on Sherry’s situation – unable to have children, she is seen as cursed. She lies about her age because she fortunately looks younger than she is. She is much more hard line on her views on marriage than Charlotte, but it seems the pressure on her is more obvious and emphatic. For Austen, Charlotte is just feeling guilty about the prospect of her brothers having to care for her, but none of her family ever make her feel bad about it – not so for poor Sherry. Her pursuit of Khaleen is much more intentional, then, understandably so. And as he is now a widower with three children, he is happy to marry a woman unable to have children. Arguably Khaleen is a character who becomes worse than the original in this adaptation – rather than ignorant and pompous, he’s actively horrid, obliquely threatening Alys with an acid attack for refusing his proposal (or rather, pointedly saying he wasn’t the sort of man to do that, when no-one had mentioned it, and by bringing it up making it revoltingly clear that he’s the sort of man who would think about it). He’s also objectifies the women, considering their sexual appeal in a way that’s really unpleasant to read alongside his insistence on piety. That was a contrast we didn’t get with Collins, and it’s very effective in its discomfort. Despite this, however, Sherry seems much happier with her ending than Charlotte ever did. The best Charlotte hoped for was peace and security, avoiding her husband as much as possible. Sherry has a lifestyle beyond her wildest dreams, and three children who she adores and who are delighted with her. So, one improvement on the original, one far worse. Poor Sherry’s father doesn’t exactly do well out of the adaptation either – William Lucas was kind and blustering, but Mr Looclus is a bit more judgemental, and his wife (who we never actually meet in the original) seems petty. Both seem inclined to judge Alys rather than be kind to her, which made me a little sad.

The same is true for more major characters too – Wickaam is worse (although actually is probably about the same, Kamal is just far more explicit in his crimes). Flaws are emphasised, but so are virtues – Alys’ prejudice in some ways seems more stubborn and petty, while Darsee seems more inclined to just stomping off in a sulk if the conversation doesn’t go the way he likes. But when they connect, they connect in a much more dynamic way than Eliza and Darcy, lighting up with their shared passion for and knowledge of literature. Unfortunately, the emphasised negatives mean that harsh words are said, and there are huge numbers of gender-based slurs flung around, mainly at Alys, and with a bite and anger that was missing from Austen’s very restrained story, which makes it again uncomfortable to read. Whether this is commentary on Pakistan’s treatment of girls and women I’m not sure, having no personal experience of the country, but it feels very deliberate and very pointed in the details shared and the language used. It seems to have a very similar opinion of the rich as Crazy Rich Asians, and gives them the same level of sympathy, but the feminist message is stronger, and there is also a lot of discussion about colonialism in the same manner of Crazy Rich Asians – two cultures impacted by occupying nations. But where in Crazy Rich Asians it’s done satirically as a jab at the shallowness of the characters, in this Kamal wants to make very clear the impact colonisation, and then the partition, had on the people of India and Pakistan. Perhaps in comparison, Singapore escaped relatively unscathed, while people are still dying as a result of the partition.

That’s what makes this setting such an interesting pairing with the source text. Pride and Prejudice was publishing in 1813, 45 years before the start of the period of the British Raj in India, but well after India had been colonised and controlled by Western European powers. In some ways, Austen represents the exact society which controlled the country, and represents it almost at its ascent, before the Victorian Empire, before the partition. By extension, this literature would have been Indian literature simply because India was “owned” by Britain and was thus British, but it bore no resemblance to the lives of the people there; and it still doesn’t. Yet the themes of the social treatment of women, the value of marriage and money, societal standing, those are universal. Do they exist in today’s Pakistan as a result of changes from hundreds of years of British influence on their culture? Or would this have always been the case?

There’s a fascinating cross-study waiting to be done about this book and its inspiration text, and I’d love to meet Kamal and have a lengthy conversation about the choices she made and the messages she meant to convey. I think her point of view is very clear, and it comes across beautifully, but I’d love to hear her thoughts on it.

My one – ONE – niggle with the book is the slight change in pacing, which meant it felt like the period where Alys sees Darsee’s change in manner was shorter. That’s one of my favourite parts of the original, where both have made changes and find they can meet in the middle and be happy. Kamal has shortened this part; however, in compensation, she provides short epilogues showing the endings of each of the characters, rather than the short lines that Austen provides. We see beyond the happily ever after instead.

There are no real surprises in the plot – it’s Pride and Prejudice, through and through – but that gives Kamal the space to explore culture and characters and she does that brilliantly. I loved it completely.

Briefly:

  • An expert adaptation of Pride and Prejudice which understands the original plot and all the key themes, while setting it in a culture that at once mirrors and contrasts it to great effect.
  • Kamal takes the time and effort to explore the characters with more detail than Austen did, giving even minor characters space for growth and development. Not necessarily for the better.
  • Don’t expect any twists on the plot, or subversions, but do prepare yourself to be submerged in a clever satire of the author’s culture and experience. Brace yourself, however, for some gendered slurs to be thrown around with a fair amount of vitriol at various points.

Rating: 5/5 – I think this may be one of my new favourite adaptations of the book. It’s definitely up there.

2 thoughts on “REVIEW: Unmarriageable – Soniah Kamal

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