TWI Review: Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal

Reviewed by Ashini J. Desai

There have been many adaptations and reinterpretations of Jane Austen’s, Pride and Prejudice. The timeless essence of her characters has 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 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 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. This is often a challenge with stories where non-English words are so prevalent, but she handles it well with supplementing a translation and using it in context. For example, “Nona jee, don’t encourage this pagal larki, mad girl,” Mrs. Binat said.

 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 debate body image ideals pushed on women. 

 Kamal uses the background of a grand wedding as the prominent social event with its 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 have mastered the art of spreading selective rumors. This is familiar since Austen knew this same world. 

 Mrs. Pinkie Binat’s voice echoes that of many South Asian mothers whose primary focus is to get 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. She has her mission and does not lose sight of her focus and orchestrates situations, much to the embarrassment of her daughters:

 “And Alys, you too are aging by the day. You also need to get married, and plenty of eligible bachelors must be at the polo match to come to your rescue when they find out you need a ride home.”

 Since there is an emphasis on appearances, she expertly discusses the impact of wearing a classic sari versus outrageous trends to events. The banter between the mother and daughters is familiar to many who have been told what to wear. In one scene, the sisters debate the fashion and cultural significance of wearing saris, burqas or ‘mini dhotis’ to the wedding. Kamal takes this moment to introduce the audience to the variety of cultural and religious influence on women’s fashion as each character takes a stance. 

 Mrs. Binat continues to fuss about her daughters and doesn’t let the idea of marriage drop for one moment. In this scene, Kamal’s language is so distinct and clearly conveys the relationship between the main characters:

 “Jena, my sweet girl, you are too idealistic,” Mrs. Binat said. “On that note, Jena, Alys, if anyone asks your age, just change the subject. I so wish you’d stop telling everyone your real ages, but it is the fashion to think your mother unwise and never listen to her.”

 “But you’re always telling the girls to be fashionable,” Mr. Binat said, winking at Alys.

 “Wink at Alys!” Mrs. Binat threw a dagger of a look at her husband. “Please Barkat, wink at her again. Keep teaching her to disrespect her mother…”

 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 who 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 for that moment.

 The best part of this book are the snapshots at the end. 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.

Ashini J Desai balances creative writing with family and a technology management career. She writes poetry and short stories, which have been published in various literary journals and anthologies. While she doesn’t write for a living, she writes to live! She believes that to live your best life, all you need are books to open your mind, art to inspire you, and music to sweep you away.