Saturday, December 25, 2010

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

5 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.

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

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  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...

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  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.

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

    good luck with your trip

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