Skip to main content

BOOK REVIEW: Beautiful From this Angle

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal
Author: Maha Khan Phillips
Published in Daily Times / Saturday, December 25, 2010 /
Under the Title: Couture served with a side of scandal

Attend a decadent party in the city, document a rural tragedy and dupe a bunch of “angrez” — it is all in a day’s work for the characters created by Maha Khan Phillips. Her debut novel features Pakistan dressed up in couture and served with a side of scandal. This is fiction based on (rarely acknowledged) facts that alternates between rural and urban settings — merrily creating waves in one and unabashedly finding dirt in the other. Using such a varied palette enables her to draw on a wide range of complex themes that are useful in expanding the stage, which looks like a catwalk in the beginning.

The writer takes present day Pakistan — a hub of violence and an increasingly misunderstood region — and draws a composite that will jolt, repel, confound and overwhelm. She has embedded an unvarnished account of Karachi’s nightlife complete with the underground party scene and all that it entails, within a narrative that lures the curiosity seekers but stirs things around to force more urgent issues to the fore. She will also tiptoe past the political underbelly and, at the same time, hit all the notes in vogue — from the mullah and military to fundamentalism and feudalism. Somewhere in this mix are the privileged, happily settled on an oasis of calm, and the poor, living off their scraps.

Her principal character, Amynah, pens a (delightfully indiscreet) gossip column, ‘Party Queen on the Scene’, that “dishes the dirt on the bold, the beautiful and the downright ugly” while trying to come up with a (truly dreadful) “oppressed woman’s novel”. One of Amynah’s cronies has been reeled in by some Englishman and asked to set up a “mock Islamic terrorist training camp on the Waziristan border for Z-list English celebrities” for ‘Who Wants to be a Terrorist’ — a campy reality show for London’s Channel 4.

Monty Mohsin, the smarmy celebrity producer would be aware of the perils of sending wannabe terrorists to the heart of terror land in real life. The fictional world is supposedly operating under the same constraints. But, in the book, duplicity is the name of the (media) game, mastered to perfection on both sides of the fence where the Montys of this world always have a solution. Meanwhile, the oppressed woman is wending her way through the narrative guided by the “Party Queen’s” best friends. The situations depicted here are inspired by real life but taken to ridiculous extremes. Still, the writer makes this ludicrous sounding premise look and sound utterly convincing.

Since Maha provides access to an exclusive club after taking away the filters generally used whenever Pakistan is mentioned, the book is a bold and irreverent trek through (traditionally) forbidden territory that, at times, can be uncomfortable to watch. The book does not bother with niceties and maintains a ceaseless stream of mordant wit to take down whatever or whoever gets in the way. A lot of innocent (and some not so innocent) bystanders get in the line of fire; socialites who hide Marie biscuits in Marks and Spencer tins to serve to “folks who don’t know the difference”, journalists dressed for combat who lap up horror stories about this region and have an exaggerated sense of danger and, finally, the West’s rallying cry for “find that Osama” and the locals who join in the chorus hoping to make a buck.

For all the clever plotting, it is stifling to be in the company of these characters and difficult to root for their success. Set against a backdrop of violence, Beautiful From This Angle is a blunt instrument that silently mocks the culture of benign neglect. Its breezy prose evokes gallows humour, its glossy finish tries to cover up the bitter aftertaste. It does not play safe, nor does it care to conform.

This is a small book that moves at a frantic pace and mines the countryside for every bit of local colour that can challenge stereotypes and yet still convey that keen sense of danger that has become a part of everyday life. Sensitive readers would be appalled by the language — profanity, like drugs and alcohol, flows freely, and some of these characters will happily check little things like morals and integrity at the door. This will give those Karachiites who go through life wearing blinders or blindfolds (or both) a severe culture shock. The jaded, however, might appreciate the candour.

For Maha Khan Phillips, completing the novel was a course requirement from City University London. Since then she has penned a children’s novel The Mystery of the Aagnee Ruby. Beautiful From This Angle may not speak to everyone but it knows how to make an entrance.

Penguin; Pp 240; Rs 495

2 Pix from Liberty Books/Sarah Haris's Fb Page

Comments

  1. Nice review, I am dying to read it. But it isn't available here in Saudi Arabia I guess. Have checked several book stores.

    ReplyDelete
  2. its not?... I'll try to find out if any of the local bookstores ship to KSA...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Sara you can order online from Liberty Books web page

    http://www.libertybooks.com/books/fiction/general/beautiful-from-this-angle.html

    i hear they deliver to KSA but the customer bears the courier charges

    hope that helps...

    ReplyDelete
  4. Going to New York in a months time and hopefully I'll have the chance to take photos as good as yours. 10-4.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Ive taken some, others have been borrowed but they are pretty ordinary pix no?...

    good luck with your trip

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

BOOK REVIEW: How It Happened

Published in Daily Times / Sat 9 Feb 2013

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Author: Shazaf Fatima Haider

Thanks to Liberty Books for the (temp) review copy

Gwendolen: I am engaged to Mr. Worthing, mamma.

Lady Bracknell: Pardon me, you are not engaged to anyone. When you do become engaged to someone, I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact. An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be. It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself . . .”
-
The Importance of being Earnest (Oscar Wilde)


Characters chasing ‘happily ever after’s’ are often pulled aside by enterprising elders who try to flag all but the most traditional road to the altar. A fiendishly funny narrative pounces on the retreating figure of Cupid and explores his cultural relevance in the sport they call match-making.

The saga of the Bandian clan comes with a perpetually scandalized, formidable old lady fiercely protective…

Analysis: Survival in the Age of Information Warfare

Published in Global Village Space / Nov 2017?

Pakistani troops recently rescued a US - Canadian family that had been captured in Afghanistan in 2012 and held hostage for 5 years. International media headlines however were not all laudatory; they editorialized, and dabbled in innuendos undermining a successful mission and the men who risked their lives to bring the captives home. This is not the first time the West glossed over an ally’s achievements. And it will not be the last, since negative spin is invaluable for propping up pre-prepared narratives, advancing agendas; shaping perceptions, reinforcing stereotypes, driving ratings and controlling the message.

Because dictatorships do not have monopoly over information warfare – everyone has a dog in the race and the fake news juggernaut appears unstoppable in the age of social media and instant messaging. And while traditional methods remain relevant in the game of deception, the advent of social media has only expanded their reac…

Analysis: Pakistan’s Contributions for the Uplift of Afghan People

Published in Global Village Space / Nov 2017?

Pakistan and Afghanistan have history. And it is not all good. They have a shared border – though its legality has been contested. They also managed to forge a united front against the Soviets and achieved the impossible. It is a rare moment of solidarity and teamwork.

The final round of the Cold War fought in the badlands of Afghanistan altered the timeline since then and as the Afghan state veered off course – the impact was felt on neighboring nations. It led to an influx of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, the emergence of Taliban, the fracturing of the Afghan socio-political structure and opened a breach in the global security.

All this is in the past.

Pakistan and Afghanistan may have been brothers in arms with shared borders and traditions and historical ties, but despite their time spent in the trenches, Pakistan’s economic value as a trade portal for a landlocked region or its place as host to millions of refugees and the biggest s…

BOOK REVIEW: DIARIES OF FIELD MARSHAL MOHAMMAD AYUB KHAN 1966-1972

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
PUBLISHED IN THE POST AUG 29, 2007

Books allow people to have their say. Diaries express what they actually meant. Therefore, every prominent personality must stray from the path of political correctness and leave behind a diary. One way to regain an insight into the defining moments of our history post ‘65 War would be through the diaries of Pakistan’s first military ruler and first C-in-C, Field Marshal M. Ayub Khan, who also authored the book, ‘Friends. Not Masters’. The personal lives of public figures are always intriguing; while their contemporaries indict/acquit them on consequences of their actions, diaries give individuals a rare shot at swaying the upcoming generation of juries. Recorded during the uneasy calm before an inevitable storm brewing on the Eastern horizon and Indian front, the entries, spanning 7 years from September 1966 - October 1972, are replete with shrewdness and candor of a narrator who observed the events initially as a key player…

VIEW: WOMEN in the PAF: AN ENSEMBLE CAST

PUBLISHED in HILAL (Pakistan Armed Forces Magazine) Feb 2010

By Afrah Jamal

Progressive - Conservative - Contemporary - Professional; separately these terms could apply to any service; together they were reserved for just one - the PAF.

Pakistan Air Force has kept in touch with its roots through its glorious traditions and kept up with the changing times with innovative thinking. Oftentimes, traditions that made it stand apart have also stood in the way of, well - progress. Consequently, the service nimbly skipped past the one proposed change that was going to have a profound effect on the lives of countless young girls and would forever alter the way society perceived their womenfolk.

Before 1994, Lady Officers were a rare sight in the PAF. So rare in fact, that when male cadets donned wigs to represent the female species in annual variety shows, nobody wondered why. By 2010, women have become an indispensable part of the service. While, PAF was no stranger to a woman in uniform, a f…

Analysis: Afghanistan – An Actual Safe Haven – Part I

Published Global Affairs / Dec 2017?

The longest war is going according to plan; but whose plan exactly?
Not Washington - bogged down in a never-ending nightmare. Or Kabul - besieged and battered, barely holding its head above water. Not Pakistan, a frontline state suffering blowback and living under the weight of America’s expectations - and uncalled for accusations. The dramatic shifts in the geostrategic dynamics are not reflected in Washington’s stance towards Islamabad nor are they inclined towards the multiplayer great game unfolding in the backdrop with Russians, Iranians, Taliban, Indians, Chinese, ISIS and its Coalition forces.

Mission Rebuild Afghanistan

In the backdrop are nations used as pawns to keep Cold War allies or emergent threats in check. On the side are non-state actors wielded as weapons to thwart ambitions and counter bigger threats like ISIS. And at the centre is a strategy that offers a patchwork quilt of something old, something new, something borrowed to s…

BOOK REVIEW: Pakistan: Beyond The ‘Crisis State’ / Author: Maleeha Lodhi

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, June 18, 2011

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Published under the title: 17 Reasons to Hope

“History will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, history will have its revenge and retribution”— from the movie, ‘Good Night, & Good Luck’

A region known for most “terrorist sightings”, a place feared for harbouring medieval mindsets next to progressive thinkers and a nation shunned for having an affinity for nuclear toys. By turns a cautionary tale, an indispensable ally and an international pariah, Pakistan does not fit into any mould — for long. But its name crops up whenever things go awry.

Pakistan: Beyond the ‘Crisis State’ is a compilation of articles put together by Maleeha Lodhi that countermands the grim prognosis. When Ms Lodhi, who has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and UK, acknowledges that “resilience has been part of Pakistan’s story from its inception, obscured by the single issue lens…