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Holy Woman, The Paperback – 1 Oct 2013
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About the Author
Qaisra Shahraz was born in Pakistan and grew up in England. She read English and Classical Civilizations at the University of Manchester. Later, she gained two Masters Degrees in European Literature and Scriptwriting from Salford University. Qaisra is an award winning short fiction writer and has written extensively for magazines and newspapers as well as a number of television scripts and drama serials. Her acclaimed fourteen-episode drama serial 'Dil Hee to Hai' has been produced in Pakistan and shown around the world. In her other career, she is a lecturer, trainer, and College Inspector for OfSTED and the Adult Learning Inspectorate. Qaisra lives in Manchester with her family. Typhoon is her second novel, and a sequel to The Holy Woman. She is currently working on her third book. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Shahraz writes quite movingly (and sometimes interestingly) about Islamic customs and law, and gives a convincing account of what it is like to live in a relatively feudal society in the 21st century (or late 20th - I wasn't quite sure when the novel was set). There are some intriguing discussions about what the burqa can symbolize for women, and about the rights of women under Islam, and about the nature of female independence. The descriptions of village customs and traditions could be fascinating, and the cast of characters gave a reasonable representation of what life in Pakistan is like for a range of women. The father/daughter relationships are also quite touching. All these make me feel the book merits three stars - but at the same time I have to say I didn't enjoy it much!
Largely, this is due to the rather clunky writing style, which as other reviewers have noted can sound at times reminiscent of a cheap romance novel. The women are all incredibly beautiful with wonderfully curvaceous forms, the men have burning eyes and handsomely sculpted features, and there's copious amounts of sighing, moaning and passionate outbursts. For the first 100 pages we're told endlessly how beautiful, fashionable and wealthy Zarri Bano is, to the extent that she comes across as frivolous - which makes her rapid adjustment to life as a holy woman unbelievable. Sikander is a stereotypical hugely wealthy, hugely handsome Prince Charming figure straight out of a popular romance - in fact I have to say I found him selfish, superficial and boring, and had no idea why Zarri Bano continued to lust after him when she had the gorgeous Ibrahim wanting her as his wife. The whole situation with Sikander and Zarri Bano's bland younger sister Ruby, who Sikander improbably comes to love 'more than life itself' was unbelievable. The language for long stretches was very overblown, sometimes to the point of being ridiculous. For example, Zarri Bano's hair 'catches fire' every time the sun shines on it, though as it's very likely she had black hair I don't think that's possible! Even better, Sikander's eyes at one point change colour due to the strength of his emotion (the only time I've seen that happen was in a dreadful film called something like 'Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger').
Worse, the novel, for all its great length (544 pages) has very little plot. Unlike your average Kate Mosse book, which is a similar length but packed full of events and characters, The Holy Woman has a smallish cast and very little happens. Zarri Bano becomes a Holy Woman (after 100 pages), travels around a bit, makes a few points to women about Islam (usually summed up in a page or so per visit, lusts after Sikander and scolds herself for doing so. Sikander sulks, gets married and then - due to unforeseen events - sulks again. The Kaniz, Firdaus and Khawar situation goes on for ever, and culminates in Kaniz having a total personality transformation from haughty scold to benevolent altruist (as for Khawar, he seems to change his mind about things in about five seconds flat). The only way Shahraz can bring Zarri Bano and Sikander back together is by that old authorial device of the Terrible Accident (happens a lot in this sort of book, as in Sharon Maas's novels) and about 200 pages of sighing and further misery follow. The ending is unrealistically happy particularly bearing in mind the number of bereavements Zarri Bano has suffered. And essentially I wasn't entirely convinced - interesting though the idea was - by the plot. If Zarri Bano really wasn't religious, would she ever have agreed to the Holy Woman thing in the first place? Would she have become deeply religious so quickly and easily? And if her family were that devout, wouldn't they have made sure she knew a good deal about Islam from early on?
There were some potentially interesting ideas here, but the unappealing, stereotyped romance between two Beautiful People, the lack of energy and ideas in the second plot strand (the Firdaus/Kaniz one) and the flowery, over the top language meant that for me they never made a satisfying read. To my mind Laila Aboulela writes much more persuasively about Islam, and Kamila Shamsie gives a more detailed vision of life in Pakistan today. This novel is essentially a bog-standard romance with a few elements of literary fiction grafted on.
Two and a half/three stars
At times, especially towards the end, his speech and thoughts are portrayed as far too floral , bordering on mawkish.
This did not ring true.... In my experience, rich, handsome, arrogant Muslim men , are taciturn, even brooding. They would simply not indulge in gushy behaviour, thoughts or speeches. I also questioned the love, loyalty and endless support, the 'evil' zardarni's younger sister seemed to lavish on her very difficult older sister. Nevertheless, a great read, I have already ordered the author's next book.
I had little knowledge of the position of Moslem women in a rural society in Pakistan, (or anywhere else for that matter), and at one level this was a fascinating insight into that world, and at a more simple level it was fundamentally a good love story. I enjoyed it enough to want to read other books by this author.
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