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Salt and Saffron by Kamila Shamsie

Sometimes, people write good books by accident. That may be what happened here. Or maybe it’s just one of those times when a mediocre book tells a great story by accident. Or not. Shamsie won some prizes for her first book, maybe film people were talking to her, so she just daubed some flesh on a treatment for her Really Great Story.

Yes, it is chick-lit, if you fear that your testosterone level will be harmed, stop reading now.

It is entirely by accident that I read this book right after For Matrimonial Purposes, or at least to the best of my knowledge it was an accident. If you read and understand Salt and Saffron you may wonder.

The protagonist in Salt and Saffron is working through some conflicts similar to those Purposes’ Anju wrestled with so clumsily. Some subtleties of the struggles of Salt and Saffron’s heroine, Aliya, may be less readily accessible to readers who have absolutely no prior history of exposure to South Asian class prejudice, which is Aliya’s big bugaboo. She has pretty much made her peace with the east-west thing.

There is no really good reason that it should be so inaccessible. Class prejudices are universal, but the west has suppressed them so in the desperate attempt to persuade the rest of the world that they don’t have any, that it may be disconcerting to some readers to discover modern, educated people working their way along the path so openly.

This is a small book, too small for the story it tells, which although it is told through the eyes and the coming of age of Aliya, is not really about Aliya at all, but about love and family, food and history, and accidents that may or may not be accidents.

The Asian subcontinent is the repository of several millennia’s worth of the most inexcusably tragic, violently and unrelentingly, unsurpassably sad love stories in human history, and Salt and Saffron does not disappoint.

Told in the self-consciously glib but candid and introspective voice of Aliya, this book will take you back, if you let it, through the intricacies of the Mughal dynasties, the horror of Partition, down to the present day, in the history of one kinda sorta royal family that still considers itself kinda sorta at least useta be royal.

That such a short book can do all that at all speaks to the author’s skill, especially given my suspicion that she kinda sorta just dashed it off, saving her fingers for the screenplay.

You may not feel a close affinity or affection for Aliya, but that’s ok with her. You will close the book respecting her, and wondering when the movie will be out, and I bet that’s ok with Shamsie.

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  • Leena Ali

    I am a postgraduate student of English Literature at Kinnaird College University for Women, Lahore. My dissertation’s subject matter are your novels particularly concentrating on the concept of Identity and Home.

    I would be much obliged if you could provide with me with some relevant material and your valued and much needed suggestions.

    Thanking you.

    Leena Ali

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