Meredith behaves too often like someone incapable of seeing anything but what is directly in front of her. She is allowed to perceive the threats to her happiness. The fact that she's smart enough for that and too blind or stubborn or stupid to do anything about it — even to discuss it, seems unlikely. Meredith allows her promise to take over her life. Discouraged by his wife's refusal to accept his help and by her consuming attention to everything but her home and him, her husband leaves her.
Nina is more acceptable. Her behavior seems consistent with a talented and driven modern young woman.
The problem with Anya and Meredith is that they don't quite ring true. It is not that they are not carefully drawn and their basic qualities clearly indicated, it's that they seem almost too sharply outlined. It's hard to accept that a mother would so completely reject her daughters from infancy to the time in the story when they are adults. Even the father who acted as go-between and buffer never even made the situation understood. It's hard to accept that he had apparently never tried to do more than cushion the emotional blows his daughters were receiving from their mother, that no one was wiser even by the time he had grandchildren in their late teens and early twenties.
If the reader has no difficulty accepting the situation as presented, the long and complicated insertion of a fable that serves as a key to the mystery and the secrets of the past, and even the meaning of the winter garden works. Hannah's most lyrical writing appears in this fable presented as an ancient fairy tale retold over their childhoods to the two daughters. It succeeds in an honored tradition of fantasy that readers will be happy to recall from their own childhoods.
Speaking of writing, however, there are some jarring places. Repeatedly, for instance, Hannah uses the word "grabbed" in a rather formal passage where that locution sounds completely out of place. Some anachronisms in the legend catch the eye. For some the story will seem stretched too much and the back-story that forms the foundation for the present takes too long to tell.
It should be added that there may be some reason for the above problem because the story deals in painful detail with the horrific World War II siege of Leningrad/St. Petersburg. Much of that section reads as though the research had been done with primary sources. It could stand beside any classic descriptions of the horrors of war. All Quiet on the Western Front, Journey's End, and classic reportage from World War II are no more gripping than Hannah's scenes.
This is a many-layered story, ambitiously told in great detail. Perhaps the ending is too dependent on luck and chance. There's a possibility that one of its charms may prove to be its length. There's plenty of suspense in the contemporary story line and in the two sub-plots that will keep a reader up late.
The Winter Garden is a slightly flawed but enjoyable tale about people who fit the fiction, but some of them perhaps not quite to the life.
The 1947 Indian Independence Act initiated the dissolution of the British Indian Empire and, following Partition, the creation of the modern states of India and Pakistan (and, in 1971, Bangladesh). While television and movies have provided South Asians a portal on the United States, novels and memoirs (and, yes, Bollywood) have furnished Westerners with a window through which to learn about the vast South Asian subcontinent in the post-independence period. The works available in English from India have been large in number (and, often, in size). Matching this output, Sara Suleri, Nadeem Aslam, Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie, Bapsi Sidhwa, and Hanif Kureishi have written award-winning books about Pakistan and Pakistanis. Still, many readers have yearned for more English language fiction from Pakistan. They will be delighted to learn that Daniyal Mueenuddin has obliged with a strong debut collection of eight beautifully written, interwoven short stories.
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is a sober, engaging, and thought-provoking volume that explores the decline of Pakistan’s feudal order. The stories grow out of Mueenuddin’s experience as a young man in the late 1980s trying to save his family’s vast land holdings. The collection contemplates the re-ordering of Pakistan’s class structure, the plight of women and, especially, the ever-present role of calculation and negotiation in human relationships.
Survival is one theme in these stories. “Nawabdin Electrician” opens the collection. In it Mueenuddin considers various forms of wrong doing, and the possibility of forgiveness. Nawabdin is a talented technology-cheat. He is no saint. Stealing electric assures him employment and eventually the gift of a coveted motor cycle from his landowner-employer. He is good-hearted but when he meets trouble, is injured, and ultimately asked for forgiveness by his assailant, Nawabdin’s judgment is swift and unyielding: “Go to hell. Men like you are good at confessions. My children would have begged in the streets….Never. I won’t forgive you. You had your life, I had mine. At every step of the road I went the right way and you the wrong.” Nawabdin is thick with ego: He took six gunshots and he survived.
Mueenuddin’s stories about women are utterly unsparing. Several of his female characters are poor, dependent, and desperately trying to create a less impoverished and insecure future. All of these women use sexuality and companionship in their attempts to climb out of the fate dropped on them by birth, early marriages or, the fact, according to one heroine, that “[I]n this world some families rise and some fall.” One by one, Saleema, Zainab, and Husna discover the limits of their relationships and the ephemeral nature of their lovers’ powers. They are renounced and discarded, helpless to prepare against abandonment.
Mueenduddin’s impoverished women are looking for permanence and security in a Pakistan moving from a feudal past to a present controlled by industrialists and international men. For men and women of all classes, the changing order has unmoored centuries of obligation and expectation. The narrator spells this out after the death of a central character, a landowner of great wealth: “The servants would never find another berth like this one, the gravity of the house, the gentleness of the master, the vast damp rooms, the show lugubrious pace, the order within disorder.” Servants are dislodged but so, too, are the sons and nephews of the wealthy. In the new Pakistan they, too, must fight for their futures, fortunes, and domestic tranquility. Perhaps because of his own background (an American mother and a Pakistani father), and marriages, Mueeduddin offers penetrating and often heart-rending portrayals of educated women, foreign and Pakistani-born, trying to find a place in modern Pakistan.
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders has won considerable praise, with Mueenuddin rightly described as an elegant stylist. It is a mark of the volume’s importance that Mueenuddin creates discomfort and refuses the reader the crutch of sentimentality in a collection of stories that is not to be missed by those who love the short-form genre, as well as readers anxious to understand the social and economic challenges faced by contemporary Pakistanis.