Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is such a classic that it has been revisted and rewritten through all sorts of different lenses, some successful and some less so (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is one I’d put in the latter category; it’s neither a good version of P&P nor a good zombie novel), so the idea of setting it in modern day Pakistan, as Soniah Kamal does in the new Unmarriageable, seems reasonable on its face, and turns out to be a brilliant way of seeing the book anew.
Anyone who’s writing a new version of an old classic is walking a tightrope between being slavishly close to the original and taking so many liberties with the original story that its devotees will scream in horror, but Soniah Kamal manages to dance lightly on that line. The plot is recognizably that of Pride and Prejudice (and if you’re a fan, as I am, you’ll probably find yourself ticking off the well-known plot points — ah, yes, that’s the equivalent of Bingley’s party where everyone manages to disgrace themselves, oh, of course, that’s what Mr. Collins would be like if he were in this culture, what a clever way to bring a version of Lady Catherine de Burgh into the book — as they occur), and the names are recognizable, if appropriately changed, so Lizzy becomes Alys, Bingley becomes “Bungles” Bingla, Darcy becomes Darsee, Jane is Jena, Lydia is Lady, and so on. Some of the original personalities carry over to this book, but none of them is exactly like his or her source, and that’s an excellent thing.
Alys is an unmarried woman of 30, pretty much considered to be on the shelf for the rest of her life, doomed to be a burden on her family, though she herself has no such concerns. She and her older sister, Jena, are teaching at a local private school for girls (founded and run by Begum Beenah dey Bagh — and if you’re thinking of Lady Catherine de Burgh, you’re thinking along the right lines). Alys is teaching English literature to high school girls who know perfectly well that their value is tied directly to their ability to attract rich husbands, no matter what scandalous things Alys says, and indeed, once a girl in Alys’ class gets engaged, she’s on the road to dropping out of school entirely, with her parents’ and her intended’s blessings. Alys teaches the girls Pride and Prejudice (this book brilliantly starts with Alys’ getting the girls to write their own versions of the famous opening line from Pride and Prejudice), and, while Alys doesn’t directly compare the events of this book to those in the book she’s teaching, she’s certainly aware of Jane Austen’s take on the world, and admires it.
The backstory for the BInat family is different from that of the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice, in that the family was cheated out of its former status due to the machinations of the brother of Mr. Binat, a much gentler and less acerbic version of Mr. Bennet in the original. His wife, who is much smarter and less of a ditz than Austen’s version, is well aware of the girls’ new status and determined that they will still marry well, and when the family is invited to the social event of the year, part of the wedding festivities of a couple of the area’s richest and most socially “in” young people, Mrs. Binat fully intends to set her daughters to work to attract someone who will propose to them immediately and make their dreams (or her version of their dreams) come true. That nobody else in the environment thinks this is a bizarre idea tells you a lot about the milieu in which the book is set. So Jena meets Bungles and his two nasty sisters, and their handsome but snobbish friend, Darsee, and Darsee snubs Alys for her looks and what he considers her lack of breeding, and we’re off.
Considering that the events of Unmarriageable take place over a fairly short time period, it’s impressive how Kamal manages to hit all the high and low points of Pride and Prejudice, including Alys’ rejection of Darsee’s unexpected marriage proposal, Lady’s unfortunate elopement with Wickaam and the ways Alys changes her opinion of Darsee to lead to their happy ending. Nothing feels rushed, nothing feels as if it’s been forced into the book to match the original’s plot, but everything moves quickly and lightly toward our inevitable conclusion. It’s as satisfying as Pride and Prejudice, and that’s saying something.
I can’t end the review without raising my hat, figuratively, to Soniah Kamal for the way she gave even the most caricature-ish characters from Jane Austen their own lives, their own backstories, and their own dignity. I already mentioned how Mrs. Binat outshines Mrs. Bennet (though Mrs. Bennet, I have to say, is quite a great comic character), but Qitty, this book’s equivalent of Kitty, gets to be more than just an adjunct to Lady/Lydia. She’s overweight and sensitive about it, but she’s also artistic and able to stand up for herself by the end of the book, which is more than Kitty ever does. Even Mari comes off as a better, more rounded person, than Mary Bennet: she’s deeply religious and what was priggish and obnoxious in Mary is sincere and even warmhearted in Mari.
Both the similarities and the differences between modern day Pakistan and 19th century rural England come alive in this book, and I ended up feeling as if I’d been given a glimpse into a world I hadn’t seen before very often, but that felt as real and alive as my own suburban New York.
I can’t wait to see what Soniah Kamal will do when she’s not even slightly constricted by the bones of a famous classic. Judging by Unmarriageable, it will be great fun.