Psychotherapist and author Nadya A.R.’s third novel, Invisible Ties, is an ambitious melding of cultural contradiction, trauma and family obligation. Set mainly in Pakistan and Singapore, the book follows Noor, an affluent young woman struggling with challenges posed by circumstances.
Noor’s childhood in Pakistan is a relatable, though somewhat trite picture of privileged life in the country — a child raised by maids as her mother is excessively social, vapid and negligent while the father is indulgent and uninvolved. After the family experiences a traumatic incident, Noor enters into a marriage of convenience and moves to Singapore where she struggles with her duties and her relationships with her husband and his mother.
The concise picture of Noor’s upbringing in Pakistan is probably the novel’s most well-written part. One can understand how the relationship with her mother — perhaps the most clearly depicted character in the cast — has affected Noor. The mother as a character is recognisable, her motives are apparent, her views and the decisions she makes are in harmony with the kind of person the reader envisages her to be.
A novel that describes settings more than character motivations
Noor, however, remains unclear. Despite being told by an omniscient narrator, the story gives no clue as to what Noor’s thoughts are or what motivates her. This is also the case with the other characters: we can’t figure out what makes them behave the way they do and because of this, right up to the end, they remain unreal.
At descriptive writing, A.R. is undoubtedly skilled. She can transport the reader with vibrantly detailed descriptions of settings, sounds, smells, flora and fauna: “A pair of long-tailed parakeets flew past the bushes of the yellow-and-orange peacock flowers, twirling like flames around the boundary of the lake.” However, too much description ends up distracting. The similes and metaphors become overbearing, the flow of action and conversation is interrupted by minutiae about unimportant things — what someone is wearing, what they are eating, a plant, a shop — and one loses track of events. It is apparent that the author has specific imagery in mind, but readers need details about the characters’ interpersonal dynamics, histories, and mental and emotional states. The constant onslaught of imagery eventually grows tiring and the verbosity distances the reader from the development of the story.
The dialogue is also confusing, unnatural, overly whimsical and often cryptic. For example, when Noor and her future husband Mekaal discuss their marriage at the Lahore Fort — an odd place to hash out marital terms and assess their regard for each other — what should be a trigger in the plot is interspersed with irrelevant musings on Mughal architecture and history: “He asked her with a mortified expression, ‘Have you changed your mind again about marrying me?’
‘No.’ A gentle wind drifted in through the arches supported by coupled columns, while the children and the sun abandoned the open quarters. Noor said in a low voice, ‘The remnants of sunlight must have flashed like torches and then the candles must have illuminated the palace enfolded in silk hangings and furnished with low divans, high bolsters, embossed feather pillows…’”
One can appreciate the author’s efforts to add nuance and variety, but while there seems to be a hint of deeper meaning, the characters’ responses are not believable and often incongruous.
At one point, Noor runs into a significant person from her past. In keeping with the story, this encounter should distress and unsettle her. The author creates a modicum of suspense and the reader begins to care, expecting something to be either revealed or resolved, but in the middle of the conversation, Noor digresses into a description of sweets: “Don’t you think the cendol, and its short strips of cooked dough made with pea flour and juice of pandan leaves, looks like green caterpillars frolicking in a ball of shaved ice and coconut cream?”
This takes away from the momentum and mood the author has created, as well as from the resolution the reader is waiting for.
A central symbol in the first part of the book is an elaborate hand mirror belonging to Noor’s mother. Growing up, Noor consoles herself by gazing into the mirror and whispering to her reflection. The mirror is her most prized possession, but as the story progresses, it fades into insignificance. This could be a sign of growth on the character’s part, a moving away from innocence, from childish notions of reassurance. The author could have given much insight into Noor’s personality through what the mirror symbolised, but she doesn’t.
Similarly, much needs to be expounded upon regarding Noor’s marriage. Readers could have been made to feel scandalised, empathetic, angry or even voyeuristic. One also wants to learn more about the contradictory Mekaal who seems like a cold chauvinist, yet behaves like a gentleman. However, the couple’s relationship and its complexities — especially when Mekaal’s ex-girlfriend comes into the fray — evoke no feeling. Rather, each exchange between husband and wife leaves one frustrated, wishing they would just speak plainly and give at least a hint of what is going on beneath the surface.
Likewise with the odd rapport between Noor and her mother-in-law, Aunty Banu. Readers would have delved into it gleefully, hoping to spy on the stuff gossip is made of, yet here, too, they are kept on the edge of what must be a precarious relationship. Aunty Banu’s backstory and current life are intriguing, almost more so than the main story thread, but we’re just not given enough of her.
In Singapore, Noor meets Jake, a troubled young man. The antagonism and tension between them is obtuse — one cannot reason what it stems from. Over the course of the story their relationship is left undefined even though it has developed to the extent that Noor is willing to take leave of her husband and fly to London with Jake to help him with a problem. The cloudiness between Jake and Noor does not create drama; it just makes one question why Noor has such regard for him. The reader, in turn, disregards Jake and his part in the novel.
It is unfortunate that A.R. spends too many paragraphs describing desserts or porcelain animals while meaningful events are hurried through. Not enough is said about the effects of these events on the people involved. For instance, after spending the first 10 days of marriage away from her husband, Noor must rush to Singapore to look after her ailing mother-in-law, but no one meets her at the airport. The reader must glean what they can from Noor’s clothes: “... the diamante-studded chiffon scarf trailing behind her. Her parrot-green short jacket and brocade pants shimmered with zardozi embroidery, intertwining gold and silver threads, bits of copper wire, spherical and cylindrical red beads, bottle-green wings, spangles and seed pearls, into a valley of poppies rooted on its velvety border.”
If we had been given a window into what Noor was going through emotionally at this point — or at any point — she would become a more endearing character.
A.R.’s saga on arranged marriages and the dichotomy of East-meets-West has potential as there are compromises Noor must make and responsibilities that she both resists and accepts, but there needs to be more about this. Many opportunities to explore conflict, such as how Noor asserts her independence in one way and yields to traditional expectations in another, are not availed. Instead, the narrative dances around the edges of what could have been an alluring tale about the long-term effects of trauma, issues brought about by the need to conform, and how sincere relationships can be forged despite preconceptions. If each character was as cared for and richly painted as the setting, this could have been an emotionally diverse and engaging novel.
The reviewer is a writer, editor and avid reader
By Nadya A.R.
Rupa Publications, India
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 10th, 2017