Chick-lit fans seeking a non-white, Muslim Bridget Jones need look no further than Ayisha Malik’s delightful series on Sofia Khan, of which The Other Half of Happiness is the second book. While authors such as Nadiya Hussain have also made inroads into the chick-lit terrain via desi channels, Malik goes a step beyond by modelling her bumbling yet endearing heroine specifically on the 30-something that made Helen Fielding internationally famous. Though the book serves well enough as a standalone read, as with Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, it is recommended that readers peruse Malik’s novels in sequence in order to gain maximum enjoyment.
The novel commences with Sofia’s hasty marriage in Karachi to Conall O’Flynn — a burly, white Irishman whose passion for Islam appears to be as sincere as his love for his wife. A recent convert, Conall takes his conversion very seriously although Sofia experiences some anxiety over whether conversions made primarily for the sake of marriage are solid grounds for lasting relationships. Her anxiety is rapidly replaced by the more pressing matter of her elopement: since she married without her mother’s approval, Sofia is petrified as to the consequences that will follow from her mother finding out.
Early in the book Sofia returns to London and seeks her mother’s forgiveness. It is dramatically granted, although Mrs Khan, in typical immigrant Pakistani-mum fashion, hurls tearful malapropisms at her daughter, such as, “Your baba’s churning in his grave.” Like Bridget with Shazzer and Jude, Sofia has her own team of best friends, namely Foz, Suj and Hannah whose main task is to love their friend unconditionally regardless of how much she messes up her life. And mess up she does.
This follow-up to dating misadventures is half delightful
Mrs Khan plans a large wedding for her daughter in London and though Conall seems strangely reluctant to attend, he does show up. Hilarity pervades the book, partly through its excellent supporting characters, such as Sofia’s deliciously depressive and batty Auntie Reena who leaves her husband and then fills up the resulting emotional gaps with cooing over budgie birds. Having married in haste, Sofia gets to repent at leisure as she realises halfway through the book that Conall harbours a major guilty secret. Without divulging too much of the plot, suffice to say that a sick relative makes considerable claims on Conall’s time and this puts great strain on the couple’s marriage. At this point Conall and Sofia temporarily separate (unhappily, but by mutual consent) and the novel takes a more serious turn.
A more apt title for The Other Half of Happiness would be The Other Half of the Book. Sofia spends the latter months of the first year of her marriage in a state of depression, and while the second portion of the novel is still peppered with humour, the pace unfortunately begins to flag. A genuinely touching and funny subplot involving Mrs Khan’s desire to escape widowhood by marrying the sweetheart of her youth, Wasim aka Uncle Mouch, runs out of steam when she chooses to attend to her daughter’s needs rather than her own.
In spite of Malik’s efforts to provide some pep to Sofia’s career as an editor by having her go into a business partnership with her neurotic, but handsome (and brown) boss, Sakib, the novel never really recovers from the absence of Conall. This is understandable since romance is the main fuel that drives any chick-lit endeavour and a romantic novel without heroes is like dessert without sugar. Sofia’s interactions with her well-meaning but irrepressibly white and Catholic in-laws, Suj’s break-up with her black boyfriend Charles (that lands her friends in prison) and Foz’s rushed marriage to her toothy and greasy ex-boyfriend Kam are meant to be funny, but one should note that such interludes would work far better in a novel half the size of Malik’s text.
At over 400 pages, The Other Half of Happiness is far too long for a light-hearted romance, and indeed the problem is that it implicitly purports to be more than that. Therein lies the book’s fatal flaw; given Malik’s undeniable gift for comedy it is a shame that she allows poor editing to drown the spirit of her book. Her priceless and pithy one-liners (“Didn’t you think you’d stand out enough with a hijab — you had to wear red lipstick too?”) are overwhelmed by Sofia’s self-absorption, Conall’s self-pity, and the novelist’s sad lack of self-awareness when it comes to the limitations of her talent.
Readers who determinedly peruse chick-lit are generally tolerant enough to forgive implausible plot dynamics, wild coincidences and outrageously foolish behaviour — indeed, such aspects further the comic agenda. However, casting a soggy blanket over romance and having the heroine literally go into religious aitekaf [seclusion] in Ramazan because she can’t cope with the loss of the hero makes for frustrating — not to mention somewhat offensive — reading. It can be argued that choosing a deliberately immigrant, Islamic backdrop is a bold and original move, but there is no contesting that one can assume that such manoeuvres take the sparkle out of chick-lit.
Sadly, without its sparkle, chick-lit is not worth the paper it is printed on and though there are many delightful comic moments in Malik’s novel, it is clear that she needs to work on both editing as well as narrative structure. Ironically, it is when she is not being formulaic that Malik is at her weakest as a writer.
In spite of these criticisms, however, The Other Half of Happiness will appeal to both immigrant readers who can closely relate to its content as well as those to whom the issues it brings up are largely alien. Comedy and love are unifying factors for humanity and the novel contains plenty of both. Given Malik’s wit and sensitivity, while Sofia Khan can never replace Bridget Jones, she can certainly give her a run for her money.
The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi
The Other Half of Happiness
By Ayisha Malik
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 9th, 2017