Somebody Loves You by Mona Arshi review – talking is cheap | Books

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SOmebody Loves You is first reminiscent of an old home movie shot in Super 8, the colors saturated but barely clear: toddlers waddling jumping in snowsuits at a garden, a kitten, a blue bowl. It is the photographic work of memory in action, what childhood memories choose to emphasize. But from the second page something more important looms outside the frame: “The day my sister tried to drag the baby fox into our house was the very day my mother had her first nervous breakdown. “

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Mona Arshi’s debut novel, for which Small Hands won the 2015 Forward Poetry Award for Best Debut Collection, focuses on a British Pakistani family in the suburbs of London. The child narrator, Ruby, has a sister, Rania. Their father is “a poorly tidy man with a gentle temperament.” Their mother is prone to “accidents” with the pruning shears and to “Mugdays”, which put daily life at an impasse: “The simple things, like getting out of bed and putting on clean clothes, eating and drinking, must be negotiated smoothly. , sailed and pleaded for. The garden, and the elderly neighbor who encourages her mother to work there, turn out to be a salvation. “My mother mulched the vegetable patch,” we are told, and “removed her from the ground. first harvest of firm and silky eggplants. “But when winter falls and gardening chores are fewer, the family must be on standby for Mugduty. Friends are called for help;” Aunt number one, ” who is a disturbing figure as the girls “knew she was living with a man; we saw her putting up posters for the Labor Party with someone wearing a leather jacket”.

Meanwhile, Ruby one day stumbles upon the word “sister” at school and abruptly stops speaking. It is not so much a vow of silence as it is a renunciation of speech, an attempt to withdraw from a world unable to engage with what it has to say beyond the exaggeration of the ethnicity of the speaker. For Ruby speaking is an inadequate mechanism for self-presentation: “The first thing you start to do when you start to speak is editing.” A neighbor’s backhanded attempts at kindness are accompanied by the phrase “even little brown girls”. Ruby’s correspondent interrupts their correspondence with the note dictated by the parents: “[my dad] discovered that you are a Paki ”.

As the sisters reach puberty, their racialization and accompanying sexualization begins to poison their forays into the world. The girls go to parties where all the men ‘have names like Russell or Dominic’, where paintings of ‘skinny black men’ in ‘somewhere like Kenya’ hang on the walls, where the girls are watched and spectators lick their lips. The novel revolves around a devastating act closer to home that makes the sisters a sort of reverse version of Procne and Philomela, where the raped sister is not the silent one. It resists the sometimes overused feminist exhortation to “use your voice”: it is a book about silence as an act of subversive solicitude.

Mona Arshi’s Somebody Loves You is published by And Other Stories (£ 11.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


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