Asghar and Zahra has its own intriguing relationship with other genres and plots – and with the tradition of stories of marriage more broadly. Ian McEwan is a tempting comparison (the book has been described as On Chesil Beach for British Muslims) – but this is a funnier account with deeper roots. Swerving between social comedy and a coming-of-age tale, Austen and Joyce flicker just beneath the surface. The ghost of Middlemarch is here too... Elegant, provocative, and clear-eyed, this beautifully pitched novel asks new questions about what imagination means, and what it costs.
Sameer Rahim has written a novel of manners, a portrait of a society where clerics and religious elders still matter, a satirical aside on urban European radicalism, and a complex treatment of how family and community loyalty may not be reconcilable with the individual passions cherished by the Western romantic tradition. At least that is what the novel’s ending intimates, though Asghar and Zahra’s fate remains unwritten.
A union that is so plainly damned from the start hardly makes for edge-of-the-seat intrigue; instead, it is Rahim’s wit that propels his novel. Asghar and Zahra sends up everything from piety to quintessential ‘Englishness’ and casual Islamophobia. Zahra’s admission that she once ate non-halal chicken prompts a shocked Asghar to ask what it tasted like. ‘Exactly the same!’ she replies, ‘except it was cooked by English people, so it was bland as hell.’
Sameer Rahim’s debut novel is a tender, pin-sharp portrait of a marriage and a community. It is a wonderful achievement; an invigorating reminder of the power fiction has to challenge lazy stereotypes, and stretch the reader’s heart.
Rahim adroitly tracks Asghar’s lack of self-assurance back to a racist, bullying headmaster at his private school, which prefigures Zahra’s later manipulation by her line manager at work. But it is the underlying issues, the often “parallel selves” of modern Muslims that are most sensitively and – as the story reaches an unexpectedly moving conclusion – effectively portrayed in a novel of charm and compassion.
Asghar is 19, a virgin and a devout Muslim who can hardly believe he is marrying the beautiful, Cambridge-educated Zahra.... “Husbands are simple creatures,” says Zahra’s mother. “A nice cooked meal in the evening, and always tell them they’re taller than they are.” Unfortunately for her innocent husband, Zahra is running away from her past, and good girls don’t have pasts. Sameer Rahim shows the differences between them with wit and tenderness, and a wry lemon-twist of satire.
Rather than write an obvious story about the competing tugs of modernity, author Sameer Rahim is more interested in exploring the emotional importance of identity within Britain’s Muslim community.
But it often feels as though he is ticking off a series of issues, while Zahra and Asghar aren’t sufficiently well drawn to sustain the subtle reach of his themes.
I wanted to like this sprightly debut more than I did.