The Other Half of Happiness – Ayisha Malik

The Other Half of Happiness is the sequel to Malik’s debut, Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged. While the books can be read individually, I can’t write about The Other Half of Happiness without spoiling the end of the first book. You have been warned!

‘I’ll be shot for saying this,’ said Sakib, ‘but I always thought women preferred romance to feminism.’

Brammers shook her head while he wasn’t looking, as if it was just the typical thing a man would say.

I took another biscuit, thinking about Conall. Romance versus feminism. ‘Whoever said you can’t have both?’

We re-join Sofia on 1st January 2013 in bed with Conall, to whom she is now married. They are living in Karachi while Conall works on his documentary with Hamida, a situation which Sofia isn’t thrilled about. She still dislikes Hamida and she’s missing London and her friends. While Conall sleeps, she exchanges messages with Suj, Foz and Hannah.

Sofia’s mum’s upset that she’s married without telling anyone and, on a Skype call with her sister, Maars, some family grievances are aired:

‘It was all very quick.’ She leaned into the screen, her eyes looking bigger than usual. ‘I mean, how well do you actually know him?’

‘It’s Conall.’

She raised her eyebrows. ‘Yeah, but who’s his family?’

‘I didn’t realise we were living in a Regency novel.’

‘You can tell a lot about a person from their family,’ she said.

‘I hope not,’ I replied as she stuck her finger up at me.

She handed Adam a rusk and added: ‘You never just marry one person. You marry their whole family.’

The latter comment is what lies at the nub of the novel. Conall rarely mentions his family but, when Sofia ends up back in London, Sofia’s mum decides Sofia and Conall are having another wedding. Amongst the 300 guests, Sofia’s mum invites Conall’s parents. His mum attends and, before the wedding’s barely over, Sofia discovers a huge secret Conall’s been keeping from her.

While the problems which ensue form the main plot of the novel, there’s a number of subplots. Sofia’s back in London because Katie, her editor, and her new co-worker, Sakib, have proposed she writes a guide to marriage from her unique perspective. Her mum’s getting remarried to a man she knew 40 years ago who she’s rediscovered via Facebook and her Auntie and friends have a variety of different issues in their own lives, mostly around relationships and children.

Malik explores life beyond the ‘happy ever after’ with the added twist of a marriage between a Muslim woman of colour and a white, Irish man who’s converted to Islam. This allows her to look at the way in which the practices related to Islam are treated with suspicion. She also expands her look at diversity in publishing, which she touched on in the first book, by introducing Sakib, who’s name Katie can’t even pronounce:

‘Sakib’s here to build our list of diverse authors,’ said Brammers. ‘He’s of Indian descent and Muslim. Like you,’ she added.

‘I’m Pakistani,’ I said.

While the novel’s still very funny, it’s much darker than the first instalment and, I would argue, better for it. Sofia and her friends have steep learning curves which feel intense and realistic. She comes to realise that life doesn’t always work out as you intended it to but sometimes it’s the events you don’t expect that lead to a more interesting path.

People talk of milestones in life – graduating from university, getting your first job, buying a house, getting married, etc. – but no one really thinks about the milestones that are offered to you. And how they can mean so much more when they’re unprecedented.

Malik challenges the traditional trajectory of the romantic comedy with the strong feminist streak that runs throughout the book. I was so invested in the outcomes for Sofia, that when she did choose her path, I found myself sobbing over her decision. The Other Half of Happiness is an empowering, feminist novel and one of my books of the year.

I spoke to Ayisha Malik about writing romantic comedy, female friendships and being a ghostwriter.

You can buy The Other Half of Happiness from AmazonWaterstones
or support your local independent bookshop.

You can buy Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged from AmazonWaterstones or support your local independent bookshop. If, like me, there isn’t one near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Bonnier Zaffre for the review copy and to Ayisha Malik and Emily Burns for the interview.

Book Lists for All Humans #3

BookListsforAllHumans

Today’s list comes in reaction to this list on Publishers Weekly: The 10 Funniest Books, only two of which are written but women and none by writers of colour. Note to us all: only  white men are funny.

Or not. I’m struggling a little with this one as funny isn’t my go-to so please add your suggestions, especially books by women of colour from beyond the UK and USA.

Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth
friends, booze, debauchery

What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day – Pearl Cleage
HIV, religion, love

Love, Nina – Nina Stibbe
nannying, working class nanny meets the literati

Is Everyone Hanging Out with Me? – Mindy Kaling
memoir

Crooked Heart – Lissa Evans
war, evacuees, survival

Mr Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo
homosexuality, London, family, Caribbean

The Table of Less Valued Knights – Marie Phillips
quests, feminism, sexuality

Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu – Yi Shun Lai
dating, mothers, following your dreams

Yes, Please – Amy Poehler
memoir, feminism

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged – Ayisha Malik
hijabs, dating, writing

Links are to my reviews

Book Lists for All Humans #2

BookListsforAllHumans

I didn’t expect it to be so soon but here we are, courtesy of this list of Top 10 Books to Make You a Better Person in The Guardian. Four white men (sounding good so far, right?), three men of colour, three white women. Verdict = could do better (the pun wasn’t intended but I’ll take it).

There’s a problem with this list because I don’t know what making someone a ‘better’ person means. Who decides the criteria?

I’ve gone for books that made me think about the world differently (and avoided any I included in list #1 although they’re all relevant too); feel free to interpret it in your own way and leave your suggestions in the comments.

An Untamed State – Roxane Gay
Haiti, kidnapping, rape, privilege, poverty

The Country of Ice Cream Star – Sandra Newman
Dystopia, AAVE, disease, love, war, religion

Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta
Love, religion, ‘cures’ for homosexuality, Nigeria, women

Just Call Me Superhero – Alina Bronsky (translated by Tim Mohr)
Disability, friendship, love, sexuality

Blonde Roots – Bernadine Evaristo
Counterfactual slave narrative, race reversal

The Repercussions – Catherine Hall
War photography, Afghanistan, love, women, history

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged – Ayisha Malik
Hijab, dating, religion, family, writing

Tell No Tales – Eva Dolan
Far right, immigration, politics, crime, corruption

The Book of Memory – Petina Gappah
Race, class, albino, women in prison, perspective

The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney
Working class, feminism, religion, crime, coming of age

(Links to my reviews.)

 

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged – Ayisha Malik

‘Maria is getting married, Sofia. Now it is your turn, nah?’

I tried! I did! But what normal human being would ask another human being to live with a cohort of mother, father, brother and sister-in-law with two children, complete with a sister and brother-in-law and three children next door, and a hole-in-the-wall joining the two houses? (Just writing that sentence about so many people confused me; imagine living with them.) I had to pretend it was the chilli sauce that made my eyes water.

Sofia’s got problems: she’s split up with her boyfriend due to the hole-in-the-wall situation; her mother thinks she shouldn’t wear a hijab; a man on the tube calls her a terrorist; she doesn’t believe in sex before marriage, and her boss at the publishing house where she’s a publicity assistant wants her to write a funny Muslim dating book.

She signs up to an online dating site for research through which she meets Naim, a New Yorker living in London. While their on/off relationship forms a significant part of the first half of the novel, Sofia’s sister and friends also provide ample fodder for the book. Sofia’s sister, Maria, is getting married; Hannah’s becoming a second wife; Fozia’s boyfriend Kam is ‘a tosser’, and Suj, who isn’t Muslim but does have brown skin, is seeing Charles:

He’s black, that’s what he is.’ She threw the apple core in the bin. ‘Can you imagine what my family would say: her mum died and then she fucked off with a black guy.’

And then there’s Conall, the Khan’s Irish next-door neighbour who lets Sofia use his house in his absence to get on with writing the book.

The novel takes place across a year in Sofia’s life. It’s structured like a diary, divided into months, days and precise times, although not every one of the 365 days has an entry. The chronological structure works well although I did wonder whether it was slightly too long – Naim’s part in the story dragged a little, slowing the pace in the middle of the book.

On the whole, I really enjoyed Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged: it’s funny, it’s sweary, it’s well plotted and while Malik shows us what’s unique about life as a hijab-wearing Muslim, she also shows us how much of Sofia’s life is no different to any other young woman’s life in a western city.

Considering the debate around diversity in novels, there’s a really interesting passage towards the end of the book where her editor calls her in to talk about the manuscript:

‘Anyway, we do feel that, though entertaining, there needs to be more sex.’ I folded my arms. ‘Just so that it’s appealing to a wider readership.’

Wider readership? What? Like bored housewives and people who need something to read before the next Mills & Boon comes out?

‘Can I be candid, Sofia?’ Smile. ‘It’s an admirable way of life, really. No drinking, no sex before marriage, up at the break of dawn to pray. It’s really very committed…’ Sounded more like she thought I should be committed. ‘But it’s also a little tricky for people to relate to. And what readers want is something they can understand.’ She twisted in her chair. ‘Of course they want something new and unknown, but really it should also be relatable, you see?’

‘Right.’

‘We’re not talking about an exposé or anything. Just maybe one chapter involving something sex-like.’

‘Sex-like.’

I stood up to leave as Brammers began typing an email. Just as I was about to walk out of the door, she said, ‘People always get side-tracked by sex. It’ll save you from explaining why you decide to live the way you live.’

I didn’t know I had to explain my life to people as well as get through the process of actually living it.

Quite. Considering the findings of the Spread the Word Writing the Future report, it wouldn’t surprise me if this were an actual conversation someone had with Malik. The idea that a novel about young women dating, negotiating the wishes and desires of their parents and living and working in a city isn’t relatable is laughable as is the idea that white readers – because that’s the subtext here, as if only white people read novels – will be put off reading the book because of the protagonist’s choices. Somehow Patrick Bateman’s choices didn’t put thousands of us off reading American Psycho and I really hope that doesn’t mean swathes of the population relate to the way he chooses to live his life.

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged is a good bit of commercial fiction. It’s funny, it’s heart-breaking, it’s heart-warming and it has a protagonist who’s determined to live life and write her book her way. An enjoyable read.

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged is published by new imprint twenty7. It’s available in ebook now and in paperback in January.

Thanks to twenty7 for the review copy.