I confess: I picked up this book because I liked the title. It reminded me of a museum and I love museums. I’m a sucker for other people’s obsessions. I like it when you can almost taste someone’s avid interest in something– butterflies, whale skeletons, medieval art, mustard (yep, it exists).
The same goes for books. In a good book, you can sense the author’s fascination with the world he or she has created in the fabric of his or her writing. Daniyal Mueenuddin’s fascination with– and anguish for– his home country of Pakistan is written into every sentence of this brilliant, painful collection of interwoven short stories. Every story is indeed a wonder: marvelously written, sad, funny, and rich with details. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is Mueenuddin’s first book and was a National Book Award finalist in 2009. As a child, Mueenuddin split time between Lahore, Pakistan and Elroy, Wisconsin. These stories paint a nuanced portrait of Pakistan that’s both harsh and deeply human.
At the center of the collection is the Harouni family, wealthy landowners who follow European fashions and throw luxurious parties for their friends. They’re surrounded by a tangled web of cousins, lovers, and servants. On one hand, this book is a portrait of social hierarchy gone horribly wrong. Everything—love, sex, family connections—becomes a power game, a chance to improve your lot. Women are especially vulnerable. In “Provide, Provide,” a woman takes a man of higher standing as her lover only to fall into poverty and disgrace when he dies.
But, on the other hand, there is so much more to this book than class tension. The “so much more” resides in Mueenuddin’s mesmerizing details. I had to read this passage from “Provide, Provide” five times before I could get over how lovely it was:
“He became familiar with the smallest aspects of her body. She cut her toenails one day, but cut to far, into the quick, an inverted half-moon, until one of the nails bled. He loved this wildness in her, evidence of hardness towards herself, contained violence.”
Mueenuddin treats brutal poverty and opulence with the equal dignity. “Cut a rich woman, and she bleeds just like a poor one,” said Chekhov. You can hear echoes of Chekhov in Mueenuddin’s lean prose and beautiful, slightly unsettling endings. “Our Lady of Paris” is pushing its way to the top of my “Best Last Lines” list. It’s a gorgeous, deeply affecting story about a Pakistani man named Sohail who’s enamored with an American girl, Helen. In a later story, another character mentions offhand that Sohail is married to an American woman named Sonya. This kind of casual, heartbreaking detail holds the stories together and makes Mueenuddin’s world so cohesive and real.
Good books are always important, but I think this book is particularly important right now. With all the ugly press we’ve been seeing on Pakistan recently, it’s dangerously easy to lose sight of the country’s humanity. And, to be sure, there is a lot of ugliness in this book as well. But there’s also a lot of straight-up, makes-you-shiver beauty. Mueenuddin’s Pakistan is brutal and divided, torn between a feudal past and an uncertain future—but it’s also a place where people fall in love and fix motorcycles and find happiness in a ripe mango, eaten in the shade.
– Jordan Castelloe, Blog Intern