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Review: ‘The Return of Faraz Ali,’ by Aamina Ahmad

Ahmad — who was born in London and teaches creative writing at San Jose State University — puts up no Western-friendly guardrails along the sides of her story. In this way, the novel has the self-assuredness of “We That Are Young,” by Preti Taneja. There is no overt explanation of which time of day the Fajr prayer takes place, or how many stops the train makes between Khulna and Gwalior. The implicit message to the reader is simple: Be in the place or don’t; no one’s going to translate the signposts.

It is difficult to write a novel like this one and not contend with a spectrum of violence. There is immense misery in this book. Ahmad has done her research, and the world she constructs — where women in the Mohalla are grateful for the birth of a daughter because the child, by means of the work she will inevitably be compelled to do, represents a kind of retirement plan for the parent; where the killing of such a child is treated as an unpleasant inconvenience — is fictional, but tethered to the world as it was, and in some places still is. Throughout the novel, as Ali struggles to reconcile his morality with the orders he’s been given, all while chasing the familial past to which he has been denied access, the purest form of misery reveals itself as inheritance, a passed-down thing.

At the line level, Ahmad has a habit of wielding softness against the most grotesque scenes, giving them an intimacy anything louder would likely wash out. Early on in the story, while trying to quash a protest, Ali beats one of the young demonstrators to a pulp: “There was relief in the way the boy’s face opened up to him, its contours, its ridges caving in so easily, as if he wanted nothing more than this, as if he were being freed.”

Ahmad’s compassion and deep care for the psychological and emotional nuances of her characters never wavers, no matter how monstrous or self-interested or defeated they become. It remains as Ali suffers the punishment for refusing to follow orders: exile to eastern Pakistan on the eve of Bangladeshi independence, his bright career prospects snuffed. It remains as Ali’s sister, Rozina, once a diva of some renown, navigates the barrenness of life out of the spotlight. It extends through generations and transformations of place, all the way to a devastating final chapter, fully human, fully engaged with what makes us human, no matter the size of the wounds or the immunity of those who inflict them. The powerful might often escape consequences, Ahmad shows, but life without these is its own kind of poverty, its own miserable inheritance.

Omar El Akkad is the author, most recently, of “What Strange Paradise.”

By Aamina Ahmad
339 pp. Riverhead Books. $27.

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