Honestly, I think I like this book better in retrospect than I did while reading it. And that fact is both a positive and negative. There were times I just wasn’t that interested in picking up the book again, but I did and was glad I did.
On the positive side, Mirza does such a good job of making her characters real. I was often cringing at what Amar might do next. It feels obvious that he has a good heart and he wants to do the right thing, but he is lost; he doesn’t know how to fit in–in his community, in his family, in his own mind. And his mother, his sisters, even Amira don’t know how to help him either because despite the love they feel for one another, they do not know how to share their feelings–everyone assuming that everyone else had everything figured out–and Amar is the most lost of all of them, not being able to find footing in the shifting sands between old world and new. Yes, this is a positive. Mirza’s skill at characterization brings them all to life. We feel for them; we want to laugh, cry, and yell with/at them.
Nonetheless, I was not always engaged in the reading because of the way Mirza shifts perspective and time throughout the first three parts of the novel. This stylistic choice does not necessarily have to be a negative. I enjoy seeing a story from multiple perspectives. Maggie Estep’s Hex, Gargantuan, and Alice Fantastic or George R.R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice make use of the technique quite successfully. However, Mirza fails to signal the shifts adequately. Too often I had to reread a section, or part of it, to figure out WHEN we are in the narrative. (See spoiler alert below for an example.)
The fourth part which culminates the novel is my favorite. It is all from one perspective, Rafiq’s, full of his experiences as an old man and his reflections on his own life and his interactions with his children, particularly Amar. He even speaks directly to an absent Amar, trying to explain himself, to say all those things he didn’t know how to say earlier. No, this part wouldn’t have been possible without the earlier parts from the others’ perspectives, particularly Amar’s and Layla’s, but here is where Mirza’s prose shines. Her nostalgic tone draws us in and draws her tale to a successful conclusion (leaving me with that retrospective appreciation for the novel).
Ultimately, A Place for Us is a heartbreaking/heartwarming novel of family life and the clash when old world meets new. I recommend it for your book club–there’s lots to discuss.
***SPOILER ALERT: You can skip this part if you haven’t read the book.
One example of a particularly confusing shift occurs when Layla goes to Seema about Amar and Amira’s relationship. I read most of that section thinking, “But what does this matter now? Amira has already broken things off with Amar.” Of course, she hadn’t. We’d seen that scene from Amar’s point of view. Now we are learning the motivation for it. It’s actually a clever tactic that is so poorly signaled that we lose our connection to the story. Our narrative engagement is broken trying to figure out the shift. ***SPOILER ENDS