Book Review: Unmarriageable, by Soniah Kamal

A modern retelling of “Pride and Prejudice” updated to be set in conservative Pakistani society and centering around an independent 30 year old woman.

By
A view into a culture where ‘a good marriage’ is often still seen as the ultimate achievement for a woman.
Overall
3

This modern retelling of Jane Austen’s most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice,has been transported to Pakistan and offers the reader a view into a culture where ‘a good marriage’ is often still seen as the ultimate achievement for a woman. The moral questions of Austen’s time still resonate in Pakistani culture, including the double standards women have to navigate in love, sex and marriage.

The Binat family are not what they used to be, having been cheated out of much of their money by Mr Binat’s brother. They have struggled in straightened circumstances for more than ten years. Having five daughters to marry off only exacerbates their circumstances. The two elder daughters, Alysba and Jena, are reduced, in their mother’s eyes at least, to working for a living.

The principal character, Alysba Binat, is an independent young woman of 30 who has vowed never to marry. She works as a teacher of English literature at a private school and tries to imbue her students with a similar independence by suggesting to her students they should aspire to be more than a wife and mother, which often gets her into trouble with parents and the Principal.

The original plot has been updated in several aspects such as Alysba challenging the generally-accepted role of women and the marriage traditions. There is also a gay character and a sympathetic discussion of abortion which works well. However, the author seems to have had little faith in the imagination of her readers such that the characters’ names are poor shadows of Austen’s originals – so unnecessary when we could easily work out who was who.

While the novel follows the original storyline fairly closely, the writing lacks the poise and grace of Austen’s work as well as her dry humour. Soniah Kamal’s characters have few redeemable qualities and exhibit a large degree of cruelty towards sister Qitty. Throughout the novel she is mercilessly teased by her sisters for being fat and Mrs Binat does little to stop this behaviour.

Mrs Binat’s obsession with appearances and how the family will be viewed by others has been described as ‘comic relief’ which enlivens Kamal’s narrative. I find this shallowness and episodes, such as her jealousy over Alysba’s friend Sherry, not the least bit comic. Rather this points up the gulf between this author’s and Austen’s timeless prose.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Distributed by: Murdoch Books
Released: March 2019
RRP: $39.99

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