Fun and feuds with Great-Aunt One-Liner

Salt and Saffron by Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury, £14.99, 223pp)

The young Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie was praised for her first novel In the City by the Sea, set in Karachi. In her second book, she gives us the appealing/appalling squabbles and tensions in the divided family of Dard-e-Dil, a dynasty with fabled lands of that name and a palace of straight lines and curved arches, from whose towers it is said that, at times, you could see men hanging from trees for miles around. Which men would depend upon which point you are in history.

Little of this of this intrudes into Dard-e-Dil (try reading it aloud) itself, where servants sweated for duty not for need - though no one felt it necessary to educate them. The family has a courtly lineage stretching back beyond the first Moghul. Now it is divided, partitioned like the subcontinent. Some, like the narrator Aliya's parents, live in Karachi, others in India, some even further afield, distinguished by their love of storytelling, their clavicles, and a propensity to give birth to not-quite-twins, the family's bane.

Aliya, a dashing heroine with something of a Rosalind about her, is the granddaughter of an ill-starred, not-quite-triplet, Akbar, whose disappearance to become a servant at Partition continues the curse into modern times. With a US degree up her sleeve, Aliya falls in love at first sight in London with a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, Khaleel. She also believes that she may be the not-quite-twin of her much-loved cousin Miriam Apa, who is silent except for her words to the cook Masood, a culinary genius. Miriam too disappears, and Aliya is determined to unearth the root of the family curse, at the risk of annoying one and all - especially beloved Dadi, her grandmother.

Parents, grandparents, uncles, cousins, aunts, servants are described with relish: they have names like Great-Aunt-One-Liner, Yak-man, Hibiscus-Eating-Ayah. There's a Nawab called Binky, or is it Pinky, a couple of sprogs called Smelly and Stinky, the Starched Aunts, Mousy Cousin and marvellous others. This writer knows that what is terribly serious is also terribly funny: the snobberies, divisions and sheer class-consciousness are revealing and hilarious. Feuding, splits and uprisings all are concerns of the novel, but it also hints at the desirability of some sort of compromise, as suggested in the title. This is subtly done, and gestures to the political sphere as much as the domestic.

Karachi nights are depicted as exquisite, its days amazing and exhausting. Aliya is as trapped by its conventions as everyone else; but how she loves this city with its cricket, its delicious food, its diversity, its chatter. And it is love in its many guises which is at the real heart of this intricate and sensual novel: love of home, friends, fun and, above all, of her quarrelsome, garrulous family, however zygotic. Beautifully written in cunning, punning, glancing prose, this book provides some delicious recipes for living and loving. Kamila Shamsie has crossed the boundary with grace and style.

Comments