All The Books I Can Read

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Review: Ayesha At Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

on February 4, 2019

Ayesha At Last 
Uzma Jalaluddin
Corvus Books
2019, 339p
Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A big-hearted, captivating, modern-day Muslim Pride and Prejudice, with hijabs instead of top hats and kurtas instead of corsets.

AYESHA SHAMSI has a lot going on. Her dreams of being a poet have been overtaken by a demanding teaching job. Her boisterous Muslim family, and numerous (interfering) aunties, are professional naggers. And her flighty young cousin, about to reject her one hundredth marriage proposal, is a constant reminder that Ayesha is still single.

Ayesha might be a little lonely, but the one thing she doesn’t want is an arranged marriage. And then she meets Khalid… How could a man so conservative and judgmental (and, yes, smart and annoyingly handsome) have wormed his way into her thoughts so quickly?

As for Khalid, he’s happy the way he is; his mother will find him a suitable bride. But why can’t he get the captivating, outspoken Ayesha out of his mind? They’re far too different to be a good match, surely…

So the second I heard about this, I knew I would have to read it. A modern day Pride & Prejudice but featuring Muslim characters and set in Toronto. And I’m happy to say that it lived up to all of my expectations and was an entertaining but also thought provoking read.

Ayesha is approaching 30 and has recently taken her first job as a substitute teacher at a local high school. Teaching is not her passion but it’s a good, solid career and it will help her support her family. Ayesha has the soul of a poet and often performs at poetry nights but she’s not sure she can make that a career. She’s part of a large family that have all moved to Toronto but Ayesha’s mother and grandparents do not really see the need to arrange her marriage or pressure her in any way. Her younger, flighty cousin has just entered the marriage market and is determined to cultivate 100 proposals.

In contrast, Khalid is a much more conservative Muslim, devoting large portions of his day to prayer and visiting the local mosque often. He’s strict in his dress as well, which causes a problem with his new boss who has a very stereotypical view of Muslims. His friends think he should lighten up a bit, relax the dress sense and live a little but Khalid finds comfort in his routines and after what happened with his sister, he’s happy for his mother to choose his bride.

Things get so complicated when Khalid and Ayesha meet and both of them experience that spark of chemistry. They are not at all compatible – Ayesha enjoys freedom as someone who is basically a spinster in her community and she’s not the sort to give up her career or anything like that if she were to marry. Khalid knows his mother would never approve of Ayesha either and it should not work.

I really, really enjoyed this. Khalid is a character that is unflinchingly Muslim. He’s very devout, he dresses in a very traditional manner and he is very rigid in his ways as well. Definitely a very Muslim Mr Darcy. He’s also of course, prone to judgement as well. His mother is a very domineering sort of woman, who sees choosing Khalid’s bride as a way of maintaining control over him. Khalid doesn’t care how his actions look to anyone, he is who he is. He’s also a bit socially awkward so when his new boss comes in with assumptions and begins a campaign to try and basically force him out, he doesn’t really know how to negotiate the situation. I think that part of the story was very interesting – Khalid’s boss is representative of how a lot of uninformed white people feel about seeing Muslims who continue to practice their religion openly and frequently, who choose not to shake hands or touch women, who grow beards and who don’t conform to the social norm in terms of dress. Khalid is a South Asian Muslim but his boss assumes he’s Middle Eastern (because that’s where all Muslims come from of course), saying he can go back there to where he belongs if he doesn’t like the tasks she’s setting for him (which are not in his job description) completely ignoring the fact that he’s Canadian of South Asian origin.

Few people get the chance to know Khalid well but he’s hard working and very reliable and capable of humour. Definitely a bit straight-laced but he’s helpful with a good heart and a few little hidden depths. He takes some getting used to, to allow his character to really show. I really enjoyed his devotion to cooking and how it makes him feel – and the fact that he feels as though this is a piece of himself he has to hide away. Ayesha isn’t a good cook and doesn’t enjoy it and has no real time for the traditional meetings of families in arranging marriages. She doesn’t care to fulfil a quiet role being seen and not heard. I really loved her relationship with her grandparents, particularly her grandfather who is a very interesting man. Her cousin is extraordinarily tedious (a modern day Lydia), indulged and spoiled, beautiful and lazy. She is happy to put her hand up for something and then leave Ayesha to do all the work. She’s also happy to deliberately hurt her cousin’s feelings as well. The stuff about Ayesha’s own parent’s marriage was really interesting too and I think her perceptions of that had definitely influenced the way she herself felt about marriage and the role it played.

This was highly entertaining but also didn’t shy away from highlighting discrimination and ostracisation in the workplace. I enjoyed the humour and the differing family relationships – Khalid’s family was much different to Ayesha’s and her immediate family was different to that of her uncle, etc. This all blended together really well.

8/10

Book #18 of 2019

 

I’m counting this towards my 2019 Reading Women Challenge, hosted by the Reading Women Podcast. I’m ticking off prompt #11: A book featuring a religion other than your own.

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