It is a truth universally acknowledged that readers and writers are obsessed with Pride and Prejudice. Since Sybil G. Brinton’s 1913 Old Friends and New Fancies, the first original Jane Austen-inspired novel, there have been thousands of prequels, sequels, and variations penned by those who wish to never let the characters quietly rest in literary heaven. Next up for our praise or censure is Unmarriageable, a retelling set in Pakistan in 2000 by Soniah Kamal. Never one to suffer Austen renovators gladly, I was prepared to be underwhelmed.
Over the years I have read and reviewed many P&P inspired books containing a variety of themes including zombie bedlam, religious conversion, S&M and slash fiction. There have also been some retellings that I really enjoyed, yet I yearned for the full story retold in a fresh and reverent light. It’s the Holy Grail of Austen fandom. Could moving the story to Pakistan at the turn of the twenty-first century be the opportunity to explore southern Asian culture infused with Jane Austen’s story of reproof and redemption? If so, it would be catnip to Janeites!
Unmarriageable’s premise and opening chapters were immediately promising. Kamal had converted Austen’s characters into clever doppelgangers of her Regency equivalents: the Bennet family became the Binats with sisters Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia becoming Jenazba, Alysba, Marizba, Qittyara, and Lady respectively. After being introduced to the Bennet family, whose financial and social position had fallen subsequent to a scandal that destroyed their fortune, the anticipation of meeting Mr. Darcy, now transformed into Mr. Darsee (snort), was quenched by the modern interpretation exhibiting all of the noble mien of the original—rich, proud, and dishy. ZING!
Living in reduced circumstances, the two eldest Binat sisters are employed as teachers at the British School of Dilipabad, a backwater town in Pakistan. Thirty-year-old Alys enjoys using English literature to expand her ninth-grade female students’ minds into thinking that they might have a life beyond marriage and children. She is determined never to marry; a puzzling concept to her students who openly express their disbelief and concern for her future. Her mother Pinkie is even more vexed. Alys is one of her five unmarried daughters with no prospect of finding eligible husbands. Her father Barkat deals with the devastating loss of his fortune and the pressures from his wife by spending time in his garden.
Mrs. Binat is certain that their bad luck has turned the corner when the family receives an invitation to the most prestigious wedding that their town has seen in many years. She is determined that her daughters will find marriageable husbands during the festivities, while Mr. Binat only sees a huge bill for the clothes and jewelry she requires. When Jena, Alys’s beautiful older sister, attracts the deep attention of Fahad “Bungles” Bingla, a wealthy entrepreneur, Mrs. Binat is in raptures. Alys’s happiness for her sister is soon offset by her beau’s best friend Valentine Darsee who soon expresses his displeasure with the Binat family. After Alys accidentally overhears him make unflattering remarks about her she is quick to condemn him and his snobbish ways. As the family’s hopes run high for a proposal by Bingla for Jena’s hand, Alys’s dislike for his friend Darsee grows deeper until she realizes that he may not be the insufferable man that she first believed him to be.
This energetic and colorful update faithfully follows Austen’s plot to the very end. Readers will be amazed at how easily Pakistani culture fits into those of Austen’s Regency times of two hundred years ago. I enjoyed learning about the food, clothing—and especially the wedding, that went on for days. No wonder Mr. Binat is terrified of the expense of marrying off his five daughters!
Austen is renowned for her sparkling language, unique characterizations, and social reproof. A daunting task for any author to match, yet Kamal does a superb job with the dialogue, sharply delivered by memorable characters who strongly resonate Austen’s originals with a modern twist. Her scenes with the bickering young Binat sisters and between Alys and Darsee really snap, and her spiky dry humor shines throughout. The only fault with this novel is that Austen readers may want to jump to the intense and heated sections in the story, ie the multiple marriage proposals, Alys’s arrival at Darsee’s estate and the showdown between Beena dey Bagh (Lady Catherine de Bourgh) and Alys. Please resist the temptation. Don’t cheat yourself out of the pleasure of reading every single word of this delightful novel.
As an ardent Jane Austen fan, I am thrilled to recommend this witty, razor-sharp view of Pakistani culture paralleling Jane Austen’s Regency-era mores. Unmarriageable is the modern Pride and Prejudice retelling of my dreams.
5 out of 5 Stars
Unmarriageable: A Novel, by Soniah Kamal
Ballantine Books (2019)
Hardcover, eBook & audiobook (352) pages
Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Cover image courtesy of Ballantine Books © 2019; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2019, Austenprose.com