BOOK REVIEW - SoPhia
When author, Shafinaaz Hassim told me that her latest book, SoPhia, was set in Johannesburg and centers around a Muslim woman I couldn't help being a smidgeon skeptical. With barely a glimpse at the cover I ignorantly concluded that it will be yet another cliché expression of the South African Muslim community and the erroneous practices of its members. This can only be displayed in two ways, I thought: a critical portrayal or a fairly simplistic one. Regardless, it is most often than not that books of this genre come under increased scrutiny from members of the community as well as external critics for not representing the facts or reality objectively.
SoPhia was unpredictably further than my expectations. While it focused on the rather sensitive topic of domestic violence, Hassim managed to draw a balance of reality, drama and pain with neither a condescending nor repugnant attitude. The novel is fictional in its nature but it is created out of an array of relatable events and characters. Is it based on reality? After reading its 252 pages I realised that it is based on tangible and commonly experienced emotions and experiences rather than a narrative of a woman's real-life experience.
Hassim, who is a sociologist by profession, is a feminist with a raging passion for the liberation of all women from cultural stereotypes. This was initially displayed in her thesis which later became her first bestselling novel; Daughters are Diamonds: Honour Shame & Seclusion- A South African Perspective (2007). Her research and dedication to women across all societal barriers further evolved into works of fiction, including Memoirs for Kimya (2009) and Belly of Fire: an anthology of hope, forgiveness, redemption and reawakening (2011). SoPhia may be seen as an extension of her previous works with a refreshing perspective and a varying approach.
In SoPhia the protagonist Zarreen is an ordinary Indian Muslim woman who very dutifully serves her husband and children but is overwhelmed by angst and grief. She is subjected to a volatile husband who abuses her physically, mentally as well as sexually. She is however torn between her own misfortune and protecting her children and parents from the harsh reality of the situation. Zarreen, or Zarri which she is affectionately called at times, has reached a pit between despair and despondency and becomes an empty shell of what she was.
Featured prominently is the husband, Majid Akram Noorani, who is a very successful businessman that is consumed by his determination to prove his worth. He is dogmatic in many ways and this is represented by his punitive approach to his wife. This disposition however is not apparent to the world as he misleadingly emanates a sense of charm and goodwill especially in front of his parents-in-law, Hafiz Yusuf and Rabiah.
"Having Akram in the Kader household was cause for amusement. This was what irritated Zarreen. He was suave and generous with conversation.' While he may be the most repulsive character, as the novel manifests I developed a sense of empathy for him. Although abuse may never be condoned, it is understood that he is battling his personal demons which form the epicenter of his rage.
Their 3 kids, Naajiah, Samir and Imaan also add value to the narrative as they are caught between their mother who goes out on a limb for them in trying to shield them from the domination she calls her life and their father who showers them with luxuries in an attempt to make up for lost time. Their grandparents and maternal aunts and uncles play a stable and endearing role in their lives. In addition to the tragedy of a failed marriage and its accompanied violence, issues regarding loyalty, empathy and stigmatisation are explored.
I found Hassim's use of strong and emotive language appropriately creates a captivating interplay between misery and affection. SoPhia is not a mere account of events but has an additional meaningful touch. The name itself, with a capital P, and the phenomena it represents adds colour and mystery in a manner that mesmerises the reader. I, however, was disappointed by the later part of the novel that seems rushed a tad arbitrary. While it is often deemed positive when a reader wants more, the conclusion was abrupt and left me with more unanswered questions than usual. Alternatively it shied away from predictability and presented solutions in neither a monotonous nor irrational approach. A good book is often one that speaks to your mind while a great book speaks to your heart. SoPhia was a conversation with my heart.
Follow Qaanitah Hunter on Twitter @QaanitahHunter.