The best fiction — or at least the fiction I like best — walks the difficult balance between depicting a sense of place and culture so vividly that the reader feels introduced into a world they’ve never visited before, while also touching chords that are universal so the reader can relate to something, or someone, in the story. Fatima Farheen Mirza’s new novel A Place for Us strikes this balance perfectly for me. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in 2018.
The novel tells the story of an Muslim family, Layla and Rafiq and their three children Hadia, Huda and Amar. Layla and Rafiq moved to the US from India shortly after their (arranged) marriage; all three of the children are US-born. This is a novel about an immigrant family growing up in American during the post-9/11 era (the children are all in school in 2001, and Amar gets into a fight with some boys at school who say his father looks like a terrorist, while the devout Rafiq tells his daughters to stop wearing hijab to school because it may expose them to greater prejudice). It’s a story about a family navigating the balance between preserving their traditional religion/culture and adapting to the culture of their new country. But most importantly it’s just a very vivid, moving, deeply felt family story, about the ways in which family members love, hurt, help and betray one another.
The world of a Muslim family in California in the early 2000s is obviously a foreign one to me, but the world of a devoutly religious family from a small, tight-knit faith community is, just as obviously, pretty familiar to me, and it was here I found the universality of this book, the parts I related to so deeply. The experience Layla and Rafiq have of trying to raise their three children with their community’s values, their hope that their children will be observant Muslims, their attempt to wrestle with the reality of those kids growing up and making their own choices that don’t always fit within the community they were raised in — well, let’s just say that as a Seventh-day Adventist parent of young adults, these struggles felt very poignant and relatable. The ending, particularly, was heart-wringing for me and it touched me deeply.
Another thing that deeply impressed me with this novel was when I read the author bio at the end and realized how young Fatima Mirza is — not yet thirty. It doesn’t surprise me that she could so effectively depict Hadia, Huda and Amar growing up in their dual world as children of immigrants — but she also explores Layla’s and Rafiq’s points of view with a depth and sensitivity I’d expect from an older author who has already raised children and seen them grow to maturity. For a writer as young as Mirza is to capture the parents’ perspective so vividly speaks of both immense skills as a writer and tremendous empathy and insight as a human being.
I read this book while on a trip to England, and for me, the books I read while travelling often carry echoes of the places where I read them, the trains and subway cars I sat in while turning the (real or virtual) pages. Reading this book reminds me of my first trip to England 30+ years ago, when one of the books I was reading became deeply entangled with my own feelings about someone I’d left behind back home. Reading A Place for Us while travelling around London has been the same kind of experience to me — a book that opens a door into another world, and finding the door contains a mirrored panel that reflects my own world back to me. I won’t forget this book soon, and I look forward to reading whatever Mirza writes next.