The story begins with Yasmeen's invitation to her mother, Laila, to visit her in Houston. It soon unfolds that Yasmeen had not been back to Pakistan for 18 years, distancing herself not only from the country, but from her family. Her self-alienation was triggered by the death of her teenaged twin brother, and the family upheavals leading up to and surrounding his death.
With Laila's arrival, it appears that Yasmeen's past life and her ghosts have been brought out for discussion from wherever she had tried to bury them for the 18 years she lived in USA. It is really quite curious how Yasmeen had supposedly divided her lives in each country so completely. The entire novel oscillates between Yasmeen's childhood up to the point of her twin's death, and the present. The plot is essentially about her effort to reconcile the past with the present, curiously negating her years in the USA, which are little discussed at all, and which seem not to have impacted on or influenced the things which are genuinely important to her. The plot moves from Houston to Pakistan, where Yasmeen goes with her children, to try to reconcile herself with her past.
The backbone of the story appears to be that something unsavory which Laila has done in her life, has deeply impacted upon Yasmeen and the decisions and choices she subsequently makes. It is a also a curious assumption on which the novel lies, that Yasmeen would be so influenced, to the point of being controlled, by a secret in her mother's past.
Sarwar tries to set up the idea that her characters are storytellers, Laila, Yasmeen, other characters in their family, and even shows the children learning to tell stories too. In this, there are echoes of Kamila Shamsie's Salt and Saffron, or Kartography, where the protagonists and even more minor characters are innate storytellers, and able to almost create and recreate realities as they spin their stories. This also appears to be Sarwar's intention. But unlike Shamsie's characters. Sarwar's characters unfortunately are rather poor storytellers. Their use of language is dull and unremarkable, the stories are not riveting as they are intended to be, just somewhat unsatisfactory and largely uninteresting. The stories told by the characters are meant to recreate the past for the readers in a lively manner, and the idea is a good one, but the execution is rather lacking, and consequently, all the stories seem to consist of rather unimportant things happening to uninteresting characters.
And like her characters, Sarwar herself is no gifted storyteller, her story eventually emerges rather flat, and her characters rather two-dimensional. The most unconvincing of the characters is Carlos, apparently Yasmeen's lover in Houston, but a character who seems to have been created without much reason or purpose, and who indeed serves only the purpose to demonstrate how insignificant even a lover is in Yasmeen's life in USA, compared to how involved she is with the things which happened in Pakistan, even if they happened so long ago.
The best of Sarwar's characters is the dead Yasir, Yasmeen's twin. Yasir is the most likable and appealing character in the novel, and although long dead, seems to be more alive and three-dimensional than all the other characters and narrators of the novel. "Without Yasir there was no magic in my [Yasmeen's] life." Regretfully, this seems all too true, and indeed, Yasmeen's tale was quite bereft of magic for the reader.
Sarwar makes attempts to weave some magical realism into the stories, into the lives of her characters, but this too falls rather flat. She also attempts some drama (or melodrama?) in bringing characters into apparently life-threatening situations, and while she is not overly histrionic, the plot remains rather unconvincing. Because the protagonist is not a particularly sympathetic or appealing character, the reader is left feeling rather polite towards her, but never warm.
Sarwar's characters and the novel never quite manage to ignite much interest or evoke excitement and involvement. It is not a novel one would dislike or a novel which is difficult to read, but neither is it one which yields much interest or enjoyment. It is a reasonable read, but is unlikely to shine when put amongst the likes of Nadeem Aslam, Kamila Shamsie, Usma Aslam Khan, Mohsin Hamid.
Unlike the Odyssey, however, Black Wings is not a tale of the physical journey that Yasmeen takes in twenty years -- traveling from Pakistan to Houston and building a life with her two children, ex-husband, and lover. Rather, the novel is about the terrain of memories that Yasmeen revisits as her mother, Laila, comes to Houston to visit for the first time from Pakistan. Indeed, for many immigrants, "home" is a place that is as elusive as memory. For Yasmeen, these memories are particularly painful.
The reason that Yasmeen has not been home in eighteen years is because of the death of her twin brother, Yasir, at the age of seventeen. The prologue of the novel is a touching story of the only photo in existence of Yasir. On the day the photo is taken, Yasir stops by [the] kitchen screen door and slips three cigarettes, wrapped in newspaper, under the water pot for the cook Riaz to retrieve when he takes a break. All such details in the book are deftly rendered, carrying a dream like quality:
I soar above the verdant Hawagali mountains. High above, monkeys screech my name and Yasir's face pushes through the mist that clings to the fuzz above his moist lips. On this mountain slope in Hawagali, Yasir never doubts that there are gods and goddesses watching him, protecting him, leading him safely back.
While the stories of Yasir are essential to understanding Yasmeen (he was her twin after all), it's the story surrounding Yasir's death, and Laila's implication in it, that is the most tragic. Yasmeen's desire to uncover this mystery leads her to travel back to Pakistan. The narration touches on the differences between Pakistan and a post 9/11 US, but thankfully, the novel does not make the mistake of other diasporic novels which only superficially dwell on the differences. Though these differences are important, they are not the source of tension for Yasmeen, who has become used to straddling two imperfect worlds:
"Our politicians are perpetually stoned," drawled Uncle Moeen. He waved his hand at the wild marijuana plants, lining the streets on the road leading out of Islamabad.
In the same passage, Yasmeen's son Sameer asks, "Are we going to see kaneezes?" As a child, Yasmeen was told that the Kaneezes are witches who travel the countryside spreading their black wings. Any woman who was older and unmarried (and thus considered to be a threat) was suspected of being a kaneez. Storytelling becomes the means by which to translate the history of the place Yasmeen calls home, and also the means by which Laila bonds with her grandchildren. In addition, the subtext of the kaneez stories allow for a greater understanding of the limited choices given to women during Laila's time.
The book ends with another story that reflects on the process of storytelling as one that is intuitive, cyclical, and primordial. As a commentary on storytelling then, and as a first novel, Black Wings resonates with the reader, leaving him/her thirsty for more of Sarwar's writing.
Book Description: Spanning two continents, Black Wings is the story of Laila and Yasmeen, a mother and daughter, struggling to meet across the generations, cultures, and secrets that separate them. The protagonist Yasmeen, a recent divorcèe, is living in Houston with her young children, Saira and Sameer, when her mother, Laila, visits from Pakistan to meet her grandchildren for the first time. Estranged from Laila, whom she secretly blames for the death of her twin brother, Yasir, Yasmeen has been living in the United States for many years. But her mother's visit and the stories she weaves for her grandchildren about Yasmeen and Yasir's childhood in Karachi and a hill station village Hawagali (an invented Gali, which serves as the venue for much of the drama) force Yasmeen to confront the past and its painful memories of loss.
Slowly, as mother and daughter share layers of magical stories with the children and each other, Yasmeen learns about her mother's secrets and the twisted circumstances of her twin's death. Deciding to return to her homeland for a long overdue visit, Yasmeen takes a temporary leave from her life and her lover in Houston to visit Pakistan with her mother and children. More stories, real and magical, emerge as the fog continues to cloud the family's past even as they wind their way into the Pakistani hill station and a confrontation with the past.
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