For American readers, Pakistan is both dazzling and unfamiliar—a land of cosmopolitan lady diplomats and hard-headed generals, sophisticated poets and orthodox imams, rickshaws and Palm Pilots, lipstick and shalwar kameez. So for anyone wishing to write about Pakistan, a well-developed perspective is essential. Otherwise, readers will feel like foreign tourists in a crowded bazaar—deluged with unfamiliar input, overwhelmed by competing possibilities and, finally, disappointingly, shellshocked.
Auspiciously, the perspective in Ali Sethi's debut novel is its great victory. Zaki Shirazi, the fictionalized narrator of Sethi's The Wish Maker (Riverhead Books, 420 pages, $25.95), gazes about himself with a rapt, focused attention. Although his own contributions to the action are minimal—he's more Nick Carraway than Huck Finn—Shirazi is nonetheless deliciously, vitally present, and readers will be only too happy to take his unassumingly offered hand. This confident first-person narration, combined with some truly startling content, is what makes The Wish Maker so unforgettable. Quite unexpectedly, it is the best novel to be published yet this year.
Left fatherless by a plane crash, Shirazi is thrust at a young age into the buzzing, contradictory world of his extended family in Lahore. Caught between an overbearing, conservative grandmother and a liberal magazine-editor mother, Shirazi finds solace in the close friendship of his adoptive sister, the mercurial Samar Api. It is their relationship—foregrounded throughout the novel—that enables Shirazi to chart a course through his turbulent adolescence. He is bounced from school to school, becomes romantically involved with girls and boys and finally attends college in America, all against the backdrop of Pakistan's political and religious turmoil, including the rise of Benazir Bhutto.
If there is a pimple on The Wish Maker, it is that the book seems, at times, almost too tightly constructed, too well thought out, too…coifed. One wishes, as it were, to ruffle the hair of the almost comically earnest, perennially self-effacing narrator, just as one wishes to ruffle the godlike calm of Sethi's preternaturally attractive author photo. In other words, yes, The Wish Maker goes down smooth, but its edges could stand to be just a little rougher. There hardly seems to be a raised voice in the novel.
That's just a bit of good-natured grousing about what remains, in my opinion, the best book so far this year. Sethi's transatlantic debut—which will inevitably make its way onto recommended reading lists, award nominations and college syllabi—is timely, topical and, above all, heartfelt. Let's hope the wait for a next novel is short.
Ali Sethi will read from
at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Friday,
June 19. Free.