Review of Unmarriageable, by Soniah Kamal


Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan

by Soniah Kamal

Ballantine Books, 2019. 342 pages.
Review written June 1, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

I’ve signed up for a virtual Jane Austen Summer Program happening in June, and Soniah Kamal is one of the speakers, so I wanted to read this book in advance, and I was delighted when I did so.

This is a pretty straight retelling of Pride and Prejudice, following fairly closely parallel scenes and conversations, only this time set in modern-day Pakistan. But let’s face it: Pride and Prejudice tells a wonderful story, so this version was wonderful, too.

One nice twist is that our heroine, Alysba Binat, teaches English Literature at an international school. So in the first chapter, we see her going over an assignment with a class of ninth-grade girls: to rewrite the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice. The one the author chooses to begin the book is this:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a girl can go from pauper to princess or princess to pauper in the mere seconds it takes for her to accept a proposal.

As in the original, Alysba is the second of five sisters, and her mother is very concerned with them grabbing husbands. Especially when the event of the season is coming up – a major wedding celebration. At the first event of the wedding, Alys’s sister Jena meets a rich man “Bungles” Bingla, who seems quite taken with her. Now her mother is determined she must get him to propose. Meanwhile, Bungles has a proud friend, Valentine Darsee, and Alys overhears him saying that he is particularly unimpressed by her.

This continue as we know they will – and it’s wonderful. Something I particularly liked about this retelling is that everybody’s drawn a little more sympathetically. We see that Mrs. Binat simply wants the best for her daughters. Dr. Kaleen is honestly helpful to Annie dey Bagh, and we see that Alys’s friend Sherry honestly does find happiness by marrying him. Even the awful proposal and later reversal is as realistic and believable in this story as it is in the original.

Darsee and Alys talk in this novel about literature and how Pakistan adopts literature from all over the world, as well as writing some that is uniquely Pakistani – and I liked that touch, showing deep appreciation for Jane Austen and her universal themes, while giving those themes a new setting.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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