This book is an impressive achievement for a debut novel.
At first sight, it is another book from a brilliant writer of Asian origin (a la Rushdie, Mistry or Hamid). And it is true that it shares many of the features of those writers. The cosmopolitism of Rushdie’s or the ability to show the conflict between East and West of Hamid’s are present throughout the novel. In many respects Zia Haider is close to Mohsin Hamid (author of “The reluctant fundamentalist”) in the way he depicts the conflict between the Islamic world and the West, and the fact that there are no easy explanations to the issues in that region.
But Zia Haider’s book goes beyond that. At times it goes too far in my opinion, crossing the line between dealing with profound issues and plain pretentiousness. He is able to move from financial derivatives to Afghan politics with ease, and making sense of the whole. But he elaborates on some of the issues too deeply, or one may say, too unproductively.
The story, the re-encounter of an American investment banker of Pakistani descent with an old friend of Bangladeshi origin, is narrated both by the American and by Zafar (the Bangladeshi). There is a clear contrast between the two. The former comes from a privileged family in Pakistan, whereas Zafar’s parents had to emigrate to England and managed to provide him with a first class education. Both friends share an outstanding academic record, excelling at mathematics and law. And it is that excellence that allows Zafar to access the English upper class.
Zafar narrates his experience as an aoutsider in all the environments he lived in. An outsider in England where, despite his Oxford education, he could not feel completely at home. An outsider in Bangladesh where he admits he lived the happiest days of his life. And particularly an outsider to his own love, the English upper class girl he meets but with whom he never manages to develop a stable relationship.
Not an easy book to read, sometimes bordering a treatise rather than a novel, but powerful anyway.