All too Easy to Slip into a Lie
This is a deceptive novel about deception of all kinds. The narrative brings together a kaleidoscope of fibs, lies, and dissembling; on finishing it you are unlikely to take what anyone says to you at face value again. It is also deceptive in tone.
The traditional 'family saga' plot verges on chick-lit, but it is underpinned by perceptive forays into the emotional cost of self-deceit. What in lesser hands could have been either superficial or like wading through philosophical treacle becomes, by turns, witty, thought-provoking, sad, and uplifting.
Bitter Sweets tells the story of two Bangladeshis, Henna and Rashid, whose arranged marriage is, from the outset, one big con. The fallout from the various resentments that ensue prompts their daughter Shona to wonder, decades later, whether duplicity is learned behaviour or something inherited.
By this stage, Shona has been living in Tooting for 20 years: her own marriage has stagnated, she has embarked on an affair with a colleague, and has just twigged that one of her twin sons, Omar, might be gay. Her other son, a handsome musician called Sharif, is dating a girl who (thanks to his grandfather's infidelity in London) is actually his aunt.
Farooki shows how scarily easy it is to slip into a lie. On their wedding night, Hanna and Rashid hide their respective vulnerabilities behind small fibs; four decades later, Rashid is a bigamist with separate families on opposite sides of the world.
From white lies to lying by omission, from conscious decisions to ignore the behaviour of others, to refusing to acknowledge one's true feelings, three generations demonstrate how hard it is to live authentically. Even the strap line on the dust-jacket is deceptive: 'why is deceit so delicious?' No one in this novel takes pleasure in their deceptions, although a few find temporary relief in concealing the truth.
What is so refreshing about Farooki's novel is the way she shuns the obvious immigrant dimensions of the story. There are no religious dilemmas, no conflicts arising specifically from a clash of cultures. Instead, her characters are universal, tossed about by nothing more alien than their complex feelings.
As a debut work from a female novelist writing about the Bangladeshi diaspora, Bitter Sweets will invite comparison with Monica Ali's Brick Lane. Don't be deceived by Farooki's lighter, less political touch - at the heart of her intimate canvas lies a compelling emotional rigour.
This review first appeared in The Sunday Telegraph
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