Author: Fatima Farheen Mirza
Published: June 12, 2018
Genre: Literary Fiction
FLW Rating: 4.5/5
First things first: I’m currently participating in the Unread Shelf Project 2018, hosted by Whitney at @theunreadshelf. This post reflects on the August Challenge, but you can look back at all the posts here!
You may be thinking – another five star (or almost five star) review of A Place For Us, really? If you are, I feel you – the hype was strong for this book and I found that anticipating “hype” in a slow burn really brought the vibe down. So I want to say that this book was good, particularly for the beautiful writing and unique structure, but I would advise you to be conscious of the slowness of this book.
A Place For Us is the story of an Indian-American family. Like any family they love each other but have their moments. This family in particular, though, has the added stressers of a strict Muslim lifestyle. Being a Muslim affects a lot of their life – the clothes they wear, the choice to abstain from alcohol, the romantic relationships they can enter in to, and, importantly, the way their classmates view them. As these factors come in to play over the course of the children’s upbringing, conflict repeatedly arises between Amar and his father and the book unfolds as they confront these issues.
At the center of this story is a generational shift from parents to children. While the parents grew up in a primarily Muslim community, and appear to have escaped a childhood full of prejudice and discrimination, the children are growing up farther removed from the church and in a society where they constantly have to think about not just being discriminated against, but also the risk of violence against them solely for their religion. This fundamental shift, while having some to deal with religious beliefs, comes across as a human story of struggle. While I harped strongly on faith in the summary above, I want to stress that, while I do not strongly associate with any religion, I still felt that I was able to relate strongly to the religious components of the story line in this book.
To illustrate this generational shift, two key issues are at play in this book: domestic violence and the use of drugs/alcohol/opioids. In this book Amar, the youngest child and only son struggled with substance abuse, and separately, his father, struggled with psychically abusive tendencies. I’ve read a few books recently (notably The Great Alone and Ohio) that tackle these issues together, meaning that one person has issues with both substance abuse and physical abuse — typically one causing the other. I loved how this book tackled them separately, so that one wasn’t an excuse for the other.
What truly made this book stand out for me was the structure. The first few sections, while non-linear in timeline, follow a relatively straightforward, third person storyline trajectory. However the fourth flips the story on its head and features Amar’s father directly addressing the first three sections and his feelings towards Amar. It was so hard to read and be confronted with the eternal and unconditional love of a father, despite viewing him as the villain for three-fourths of the story.
The phrase “stunning debut” is, in my opinion, way overused — but it truly applies in this situation. To write with such meaning and to create such a unique structure of a book is truly inspirational, and I commend Mirza for writing with such originality. I highly recommend this to anyone who wants to feel some feelings — and sympathize with those who we may have faulted in the past.