Jonathan Cape, £12.99 Order for £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, By Mohammed Hanif
Wednesday 26 October 2011
This is real life. That thing you slashed was a real cock." Alice Bhatti, a Christian nurse working in a dilapidated hospital in Pakistan's dusty, sprawling metropolis Karachi, barely thinks twice before putting a blade to her wealthy assailant's penis. She is anything but the underdog that her status in such a society would imply. Alice is no frail social outcast battling against Pakistan's misogynistic patriarchy and religious majority. Mohammed Hanif has penned his protagonist as a feisty yet compassionate ex-convict, who bludgeons a corrupt surgeon, tackles extremist Muslim girls at her nursing school, and cares for her patients with endearingly understated zeal.
Hanif's debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008), was a rambunctiously satirical political thriller. Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is, by contrast, a fateful love story; but headstrong Alice is hardly the Juliet to police dogsbody Teddy Butt's chest-waxing, body-building Romeo. Nonetheless, something about him attracts Alice. Following an improbable surprise wedding aboard a submarine, Christian Alice and Muslim Teddy attempt to embark on a life of bliss. But things don't go exactly as planned, as both of their thorny occupations impinge dangerously on their personal lives.
Hanif's love story has a violently feminist agenda. Alice trudges through the daily rituals of sexual harassment on Karachi's streets, without a single day when she doesn't "see a woman shot or hacked, strangled or suffocated, poisoned or burnt, hanged or buried alive."
The wry narrative refreshingly resists all manner of stereotypes and flowery sentimentality. And much like the hypocritically conservative censorship of Pakistani society, the narrative reveals its dirty secrets in gradual fragments. But perhaps the novel's greatest strength is its characters – the minor ones as poignantly charged as the main. From Alice's eccentric and world-weary father to Noor, her hormonal teenage chum from the borstal whose mother is dying of cancer, all are flawed yet endlessly sympathetic. Equally, Hanif gives voice to a flawed nation lately much starved of sympathy. He paints a brutal reality, but certainly not one beyond redemption.
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