Awais Khan’s debut novel In the Company of Strangers is a gripping tale of entrapment, escapism and extremism, where desperate people resort to desperate measures in a bid to free themselves from poverty, loneliness and an all-encompassing whirlpool of social taboos.

The story begins with the bombing of a nondescript building in Lahore. One of the victims is a young boy, Hussain, who loses a leg in the blast. His elder brother, 27-year-old Ali, must now figure out a way to restore some semblance of normalcy to the teenager’s life. As medical expenses loom large and their late father’s savings run out, Ali quits his daily grind of a low-paying job at a bank and returns to his former life as a male fashion model — a path littered with drink, drugs and nights for hire that he left years ago and vowed never to walk again.

Meanwhile, in an affluent suburban mansion, 40-year-old Mona fills her days with shopping sprees and coffee klatches and her nights with alcohol-fuelled parties, but her heart is despondent because, even though the blast was very close to her neighbourhood, Bilal — her husband of 20 years — did not call to check if she was okay, although he did phone his mother. But this callous disregard is neither new nor surprising; it has been a long time since he showed any genuine warmth, affection or care for Mona.

It is when the enigmatic and supremely glamorous Meera lands in Lahore to shake up the fashion and party scene that Mona and Ali are thrown into each other’s orbit. Meera and Mona were best friends in college, but because of a mysterious incident — after which Mona married Bilal and Meera left Pakistan — they have not communicated in more than two decades. Meera signs Ali to her roster of models, and her proximity to both Mona and Ali allows these disparate people from very different socio-economic backgrounds to find something of a kindred soul in each other.

Although the theme and plot of In the Company of Strangers are nothing new, Khan spins a tight story that explores multiple facets of humanity or, occasionally, the lack of it — as Mona observes, at a time when Pakistan is wracked with terrorist attacks, the only thing “people in this house were concerned about was what to wear tomorrow.” Khan also deals with important themes such as identity, of what it is like to be trapped in a lonely marriage — “Each bomb blast shook her in a physical way, deepening her fear that the world was falling apart, just like her marriage.”

A debut novel spins a tight story that explores multiple facets of humanity or, occasionally, the lack of it

There is also exploration of being a prisoner of the elite class with their deceit and emotional suffocation. For instance, when news of the latest blast erupts, Mona’s friends are distraught and one even announces her intention to visit the injured in hospitals, yet just moments later these same women are caught up in a frenzy of shelling out millions of rupees for expensive shahtoosh shawls. As distasteful as their behaviour is, it is revealing of reality and I can relate to the desensitised atmosphere Khan has portrayed — the frequency of similar attacks all over the country has hardened us and, after a brief jolt of distress, we drift back to our day-to-day lives as though nothing had happened.

Khan also does a good job of painting his characters in every colour except completely black, or purely white. To the clinically depressed Mona, Ali may seem like the proverbial knight (despite the shock horror of the ‘cutting edge’ outfit he must model) but he is also emotionally weak. Mona is a bored, directionless society begum, but her private sufferings are carefully concealed beneath a layer of expertly applied Touche Eclat foundation. Bilal is a hateful, insecure brute, but accepts that the reason for his wife’s unhappiness is his own despicable behaviour. And Meera, who revels in her scandalous reputation and builds a career on exploiting the superficial aspirations of Lahore’s elite, is firmly grounded in her own reality, remorseful of the past and a supportive friend.

As the story progresses linearly towards its culmination, In the Company of Strangers reads like an oft-taken stroll through a very familiar neighbourhood. However, to his credit, Khan manages — for the most part — to achieve that gold standard of good fiction writing: show, don’t tell. There is an occasional foray into the cliché, but the author makes up for it by keeping the superfluous to a bare minimum. The subplots — receiving the much-needed prosthetic leg for Hussain from the most unexpected of sources, discomfiting secrets about the izzatdar [respectable] elites, savage mind games played by the seemingly pious, and discovering that an enemy can actually be an ally — are well connected, the pace remains fast and steady and, although at times you can sense the impending twist, it manages to achieve just enough unpredictability to throw you off. All in all, a decent read.

The reviewer is a creative writer, poet, journalist, footballer and digital storyteller

In the Company of Strangers
By Awais Khan
The Book Guild, UK
ISBN: 978-1912881482
268pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 23rd, 2020