Monday, July 5, 2010

The Wish Maker: A Novel by Ali Sethi

The Wish Maker by Ali Sethi. Riverhead Books - Penguin Group (USA) Inc. June 2009. 432 pp. ISBN #: 9781594488757

Pakistan in the 1990's - a time of encroaching Western culture intermingling with traditional ways, sometimes in strident conflict, sometimes winning with subtlety, sometimes being quashed by the more fundamentalist Islamic and political violence. This is the world of Zaki Shirazi, a boy caught between both extremes of obedience to the old or new, and his cousin, Samar Api. It is the latter's voice that serves as the protagonist in this richly descriptive tale of Pakistani life. While the plot develops quite slowly, the description of clothing, jewelry, food, flowers, forests, stores, bazaars, and more are the highlights of the lengthy descriptions offered to the reader, a panoply of sensory elements one begins to actually imagine as being real in one's own world.

Smatterings of history enter with mixed to the Bhutto government and demise, the Muslim suffering in the Bosnian War and so much more. Little by little, the reader begins to realize what a "revolution" to democracy really means to people uneducated and unwilling initially to challenge the despotic status quo. Education, though, teaches one to "see" in new ways, as the narrator muses. In another place, the evolution into a new government and new way of living resembles an appropriately offered metaphor of courting squirrels chasing an erratic spiral down the bark of a tree. You decide which characters are scrambling or sauntering down that tough, bark-like journey to a changed Pakistan.

In another place, the reader is shocked when marriages borne out of love don't survive, an event that forces the reader to realize the enigma of embracing Western culture, a force that sometimes yields effects and affects far beyond the imagination.

The Wish Maker has been compared to Kite Runner, but this reviewer thinks that is like comparing apples and oranges, the latter a more violent foray into revolution and the former a sweeter, full, rich journey through ordinary, every-day life in a world unique to itself and still in the throes of change to this day. More about political and religious conflict would have filled this novel out, not for readers wanting sensationalism and stereotypical ideas confirmed, but for the essence of what opposing sides really thought and said during these notably challenging times in Pakistan's 1990s.

Interesting story, with a portrait-like presentation of people and their little-known but fascinating world!

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