Broken Verses–Kamila Shamsie

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This novel has a slow start, but the premise is lovely. Aasmani is a young woman struggling with loss.  Her mother was a feminist activist living “in sin” with Pakistan’s greatest poet, who was brutally murdered presumably by government agents.  One day she walked out to the sea and never returned, presumed dead by all by Aasmani, who by turns rages against her mother leaving her over and over as a child and then that final day, and who hopes and believes that she is still alive somewhere, perhaps looking for the Poet, whose body was beaten nearly beyond recognition, and whose identification was confirmed by a distant relative who had not seen him in years.  Aasmani struggles, also, against any expectation that she might follow in either of their footsteps, and she frustrates her family, her very stable father, stepmother, and sister, by underperforming in mediocre jobs at which she never stays long.

She is just started in one of these mediocre jobs for a television station when she is caught up in a mystery that gives her hope that the Poet, at least, may still be alive. Her mother’s friend, Shehnaz, has returned to acting and brings with her letters written in the code.  Aasmani’s mother and the Poet created the code to correspond during those times when one or both needed to leave the country for a time—and only they and Aasmani knew it.  The letters purport to be from the Poet, who has been kept prisoner for years.  Aasmani decodes the letters and begins to trust Shehnaz’s son, Ed, who delivers the letters to her and allows her to share her doubts and hopes about the letters.

Shamsie creates an intriguing portrait of Karachi and characters set in Pakistan who are like all of us in their griefs and hopes, but different in their political/personal realities. The fraught mother/daughter relationship takes center stage rather than the political oppression of women or the political corruption and turmoil in which they live.  Those items, so often given the spotlight, are context.  Broken Verses is a worthwhile read, if not a quick one.

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