While the West is continuously moving along to emancipate women and give them full equality, this is not true for a now sizable niche of immigrants from countries where the grip of patriarchy is often shrouded in religious, fundamentalist cloth is still the norm. We usually choose to ignore female genital mutilation performed right at our doorsteps, “honor” killings of women, forced arranged marriages, or sharia courts in the middle of our oh-so-enlightened society which take for granted and enforce the inequality of women. And the status of gay rights in those alternative communities is even worse.
Andrea Bramhall, the recent recipient for a Lambda Literary Award for her romance Clean Slate focuses her newest novel Nightingale on this “niche”. There are two strands of her story – “now” in Pakistan and “then” in England. The two story lines adroitly tell the love story of Hazaar and Charlie. Hazaar whose name means Nightingale in Urdu, is of Pakistani origin and, with the help of her doting father, escapes the family obligations, i.e. marrying and being an obedient wife. She was raised in Great Britain and studies music at a British university. This is where she meets Charlie. It is lust and love at first sight for both of them. But whereas Charlie lives openly as a lesbian and has an accepting family who embraces her new girlfriend, Hazaar lives a secret double-life. She plans to break with her family and especially her father, whom she loves dearly, eventually to live with Charlie, but life intervenes.
Years later Charlie is a skilled and slightly maverick negotiator with the British embassy in Pakistan. Her task is to help along with kids from Pakistani-British marriages or females who have been abducted to live in Pakistan under a very different set of values and laws. And with a single phone-call her sweet love story from her university years comes to life again. A new story, at times brutal and unsparingly told, unfolds of the life of a once British-educated woman now living under the age-old patriarchal rules which make her life vanish behind the walls of her husband’s house.
Hazaar’s and Charlie’s lives collide again and although this is a romance, this part of the book will have readers sit at the edge of their chair, nail-biting and repeating the mantra “thank Goddess for having been born as a Westerner into the 21st century”.
The story is well-told and with a doting Pakistani father doesn’t buy into the cliche of the evil Muslim father selling of his brow-beaten daughters into forced marriages. But it doesn’t put a varnish either on the contempt for women’s rights and the role of women in fundamentalist, patriarchal societies. Bramhall describes very well how torn Hazaar is as a young woman between the two worlds, modern and ancient. Without judgement she makes us understand Hazaar’s view of the world. However, she paints a bleak picture of traditional Pashtun society and its connection to the Taliban and seeing what happened to Malala Yousafzai (whose father is also very proud of her achievements) she is – as far as a Western reader can fathom this alien world – spot-on.
Andrea Bramhall put out a book which, although it contains a love-story, is difficult to be labelled as a romance. It is in the form a romance-cum-thriller a thought-provoking exploration beyond the curtains the genre of lesbian fiction usually accepts for itself. It is a story about a world divided, one where women have rights and another where they are suffocated and dominated by males, power-abuse and what not. The story stayed with me for days thinking about the fate so many women in our midst have to accept because we choose to look elsewhere, because we maybe don’t want to look too closely at what happens in the middle of our free societies.
There is a great cast of secondary characters to support the brilliant protagonists, the writing is superb and the editing well-done. If there is a small quibble, it is for me the hot sex in this book. Well written and enjoyable, it might still be something which could make it difficult to place this book e.g. into the hands of immigrants for whom even a chaste kiss on television is scandalous, let alone a full-blown sex scene (thanks to Ahmed, the Pashtun, who educated me about this many years ago in Delhi).
So let me recommend Nightingale to anyone, lesbian or feminist, who would like to read a thought-provoking, well-written novel about the clash of cultures happening on a daily bases right where we live.
You can download a sample or purchase Nightingale by clicking here.