Broken Verses
Kamila Shamsie
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Broken Verses
Kamila Shamsie
Harvest Books
352 pages
June 2005
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Now in her thirties, Aasmaani is plagued with the weight of the past, unable to let go of her family history: fourteen years ago her mother, Samina Akram, disappeared and was assumed dead.

Samina was an ardent follower of the Poet, Nazim, whose work reflected the injustices and excesses of the Pakistani government through various stages of social and political upheaval, civil war, repression and religious fanaticism, Samina was a woman to be reckoned with in her own right, a political activist. Her still-grieving daughter, Aasmaani cannot release the woman who moved in and out of her life, following the Poet into exile, living nearby when he was imprisoned.

Aasmaani begins a new job at a cable television network, where she is introduced to the handsome son of a famous retired actress, Shenaz Saeed, who plans to return to the screen in a cable soap opera. Saeed was a close friend of Samina‘s, especially in the difficult years after the Poet's death. Through her son, Saeed passes along the first of a series of letters received from an anonymous fan. Shocked to find it written in the secret code used by her mother and the Poet, Aasmaani is soon obsessed with the letters, diligently translating, searching for remnants of truth: "He was still alive. Oh, dear God, he was still alive."

The novel addresses two areas of interest, the Poet’s role in reflecting the ills of a society in transition and Aasmaani's urgent need to unburden herself of lifetime of grief for a lost mother and father-figure. Still, Aasmaani is in an untenable position as the daughter of such a woman, torn between the need for her mother and belief in the cause, always sharing her Samina, either with the people or the Poet.

Aasmaani is fragile for most of her life, but now she is called to recognize her heritage, define her own identity: "Sometimes I feel like I've spent my whole life missing Mama." How does a daughter not resent living in the shadow of her mother's greatness and find peace with the memories she has left? Distraught, Aasmaani is desperate to prove one of them alive, clinging to that frail hope.

Broken Verses speaks to the power of words in an age of repression, played out against the turbulent history of Pakistan since its inception. The Poet is beloved because he tells the truth; seen as a metaphor for democracy, he holds society responsible for its actions. Samina is just as powerful in her role as an advocate for women's rights, her passion and integrity a valuable weapon against injustice.

In the end, I am conflicted about this novel. I persevered, trusting the author's integrity in writing her characters, even the formidable and psychologically exhausting Aasmaani. With infinite passion for the Poet and the Activist, protected in the ivory tower of her intellect, Shamsie's protagonist has no compassion for the flawed or the ordinary. The story's facile resolution is duplicitous, an author's conceit.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2005

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