Unmarriageable, by Soniah Kamal -Reviewed

Reviewed ByAshini J. Desai

Ashini J. Desai balances creative writing with family and a technology management career. Her poems have been published in anthologies \"Cities\", a 3-dimensional anthology \"Overplay/Underdone\", as well as River Poets Journal, Philadelphia Poets, Thema, plus an Asian-American anthologies \"Word Masala\", \"Yellow as Turmeric, Fragrant as Cloves\". Her essays were included in the \"Nancy Drew Anthology\" and \"Labor Pains and Birth Stories.\" She has written poetry and book reviews for South Asian-centric websites. Her personal website with selected poems is ashinipoetry.blogspot.com




Publisher: Ballantine Books, January 22, 2019

ISBN-13: 978-1524799717

Hardcover: 352 pages 

There have been many adaptations and reinterpretations of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” The timeless essence of her characters have easily lent themselves our modern world; even the Kardashian family with their drive for fortune as steered by their mother/manager has been compared to the Bennets. Austen’s influence and characters are everywhere and we know them. Author Soniah Kamal takes this idea and uses it as the framework of Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” to construct a parallel Pakistani storyline. 

She braids the Jane Austen references into the characters to create a delightful contemporary love story. The details make this is a winner by replicating the names, the relationships, and the personalities from Austen. In fact, the spirit is Austen, while the blood is all South Asian. Soniah Kamal resides in the US, but her roots are in Pakistan so she succeeds in introducing the cultural experiences to a wider audience. She is consistent with explaining cultural references or foreign phrases, and leads the readers into the story. 

She sets the story in Pakistan 2001, which was a much simpler time in the world. The focus is on the Binat Family with the 5 sisters and 2 parents who are reflections of the original Bennett family. Jena, Alysba, Mari, Qitty and Lady have the persona as defined by Austen, but the personality and swagger that Kamal bestowed onto them. They wear T-shirts that say “Not Your Average Aunty” and deal with body image issues. 

Kamal uses the background of a grand wedding as the prominent social event, which has multiple events to allow characters to meet and interact. She introduces us to a world of socialites who thrive on gossip and shallow associations, and motivations. Austen knew this same world. 
Mrs. Pinkie Binat’s voice resonates with so many South Asian mothers whose primary focus is to get her daughters married; many are raised to believe that is their obligation as mothers of daughters to fulfil this one achievement to prove they’ve been good mothers. Mrs. Binat takes it a step further to not only find compatible suitors, but also pursue socially and financially advantageous liaisons. Since there’s an emphasis on appearances, she expertly discusses the impact of wearing a classic sari versus outrageous trends to events. She has experience under her belt, though they need to be mindful of their limited budgets. The banter between the mother and daughters is familiar to many who have been told what to wear. 

Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s relationship is one of the most complex ones in literature, and Kamal delivers the modern version. We love Alys with her short hair and her intellectual acumen. Darsee comes in with much mystery and quiet potential. Alys and Darsee’s relationship is intriguing with colorful dialogue. However, the characters have such depth and they recognize their own flaws. Even if there weren’t an Austen parallel structure, this would’ve been a fascinating and excellent romantic story. 

Kamal hits us with humor when a gentleman surprises one of the Binat girls who is holed up at home and asks, “Is that oil in your hair?” The girl just waves it off and stays on point. There are other characters are threading eyebrows at home when another gentleman calls. This is just a brilliant wink at South Asian girls with culturally specific references. 
There are points where Kamal plays with the reader by dancing openly with Austen. Obviously, the reader know that stories are reflections of Austen, but there’s a twist. The characters actually discuss Jane Austen without realizing they’re in it. It’s truly brilliant way of bringing Austen into the story, and letting the reader and characters step out of the story.

The best part of this book are the snapshots at the end of the book. By then, we have fallen in love (or not) with each of the characters. In “What Will People Say (Log Kya Kehenge)” Kamal nicely wraps up the characters and their impressions of all the events. We hear it in the characters’ voices, and can chuckle along at their hypocrisy. In the epilogue, there’s a snapshot of the characters with a “Where Are They Now” one year later. We see how the characters’ decisions at the end of the story actually played out. It’s humorous and it ties so well that we feel like “Good! You deserve that!”
Kamal’s experiment with bringing Austen to Pakistan was successful because it was needed. As Valentine Darsee says, “We’ve been forced to seek ourselves in the literature of others for too long.” This story invites readers to explore and understand a different culture, but at its core, it’s about strength of family, mothers and daughters, sisters, defining what home and romantic love mean under a demanding society.