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With the witty and sparkling The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters, British baking star Nadiya Hussain turns her attention to ‘cooking’ her writing debut in collaboration with chick-lit writer Ayisha Malik. Although it is tempting to draw parallels between the four main characters — all sisters — and the protagonists of Little Women or Pride and Prejudice, it should be underscored that the book is a very original work that goes a step beyond chick-lit in providing the reader with a story that is alternatively tragic and heart-rending as well as hilarious and enormously entertaining.

Given that a great deal appears to be happening in the book, the plot is relatively simple. The Amir sisters are British citizens of Bangladeshi descent. Three of them — Fatima, Farah and Mae — live in the small provincial village of Wyvernage. Their fourth sibling, Farah’s identical twin Bubblee, has escaped the humdrum of village life by fleeing to London where she scrapes out a living as an enthusiastic artist, though whether her work will ever attain an appreciable level of fame is dubious, to say the least. No one recognises this embarrassing point better than the irrepressible and smart 15-year-old Mae. Every chapter of the book is written from the perspective of one of the sisters and the character of the social-media savvy and flippant Mae is so delightful that the sections devoted to her are in and of themselves worth the price of the novel.

In sharp contrast to Mae, Fatima is a social misfit. She is affectionately called “Fatti” — a name that unfortunately does nothing for her self-esteem, seeing as how she is overweight — and considers herself an unmitigated failure. Being 30 and having failed her driving test over a dozen times contributes to her negative self-image; moreover, still being unhitched she finds it difficult to find solace in marriage as Farah does, or in art, as the blunt and self-absorbed Bubblee does.

British baking star Nadiya Hussain debuts with an original novel that is more substantial than the average beach read

As for the middle sisters, despite being monozygotic twins, Farah and Bubblee are polar opposites. Farah is reliable, responsible and the perfect example of a dutiful daughter and caring wife. Bubblee makes no secret of the fact that she does not care for Farah’s husband Mustafa and has been estranged from her twin for a while, though when tragedy strikes it succeeds in bringing Bubblee back to Wyvernage, albeit reluctantly.

An accident causes Mustafa to fall into a coma relatively early in the book; this causes the siblings to grow closer together, though not without their relationships experiencing a fair share of growing pains. The arrival of Malik, Mustafa’s brother from Bangladesh who also happens to be the protagonists’ cousin, livens matters up a bit. One hopes — as do the young women’s parents — that he will fall for one of the Amir sisters, but the one he appears closest to ends up being ineligible marriage material for him for a very important reason. I do not wish to divulge key elements of the plot here, suffice to say that one of the sisters is in for a rude shock as Malik’s arrival reveals something important about her that she may have needed to know, but which unhappily causes a crisis. Indeed, even though the novel masquerades as a comic domestic drama, crisis tends to pervade the book regardless of whether it involves parentage, health, secrecy or finance.

One example of such a crisis, that is both comic as well as serious enough to have far-reaching consequences, is when Mae foolishly decides to place family secrets on a blog that she considers anonymous, but which is read more widely than she thinks. When a local newspaper puts two and two together and publishes an article that exposes some of the workings of the family in a less-than-welcome manner, Mae naturally gets scolded in a way that leaves her feeling chastised and humiliated. Being the baby of the family simply makes things worse.

That’s when I lost my words to sobs and my body weight to someone who’d enveloped me in their arms. “Shhh,” came Bubblee’s voice, brushing past my ear. “You’re okay, Far. You’re okay.” I felt myself being moved and settled into a chair, in which we both just about fitted. “He’d better keep his promise,” I gasped, voice muffled against Bubblee’s shoulder. “He will,” she whispered, stroking my head. “Of course he will.” — Excerpt from the book

However, Mae’s guilt pales in comparison to the anguish Farah experiences when she realises that her husband and the girls’ good-for-nothing brother, Jay, have jointly been responsible for losing huge sums of money and compromising her very house. The most beautiful scene in the novel is when Farah rants hysterically against her comatose husband for how he has wronged her and eventually finds herself being comforted by her estranged twin who holds her close until she calms down. As Farah sobs that she has lost everything, Bubblee replies simply “Not everything” and Hussain movingly notes: “We were squashed together, unable to move, maybe even unwilling — the last time we were this close was probably in our mum’s womb.” As the reader muses that blood is thicker than water (and that of monozygotic twins perhaps the thickest of all) one realises that while the principles that underpin Hussain’s novel are ostensibly simple, they are also deep, tender and timeless.

The Amirs’ nudist neighbour, Marnie, a woman of strange proclivities as well as a heart of gold, comes up with the idea of a grand bake sale to help jumpstart the raising of funds that can save Farah’s home from repossession. Fatima makes a journey to Bangladesh that helps her to appreciate her family more and eventually realises that she could do worse in life than being a hand-model and beloved daughter. Here, Hussain tastefully keeps racist and xenophobic references to a minimum and while her depiction of Bangladesh is somewhat stereotypical, it makes sense when taken in context.

In spite of occasionally suffering from superficiality, The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters is more substantial than the average beach read and a worthwhile debut. One may certainly enjoy Hussain’s cakes and confectionery, but for sheer treats, her debut novel definitely comes a close second.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters
By Nadiya Hussain
HarperCollins, UK
ISBN: 978-0008192259
298pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 1st, 2018