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[410] The Sweetness of Tears – Nafisa Haji

” It took a lot to keep my face clear of all that I felt in response to what he told me—pity, disgust, revulsion. Until the end, when his eyes . . . I left him as fast as I could, chased away by the questions I didn’t give him a chance to ask. I know what those questions would have been. About my mother. But I didn’t want him to talk about her. I didn’t want to hear about her, either. Not from him. To see her through his eyes would have been too much—making her as alien to me as he was. ” (Part I, Jo, 66)

The Sweetness of Tears is a character-driven novel that is structured as a series of interwoven stories that span three generations. For the most part, these stories are ones about sacrifice and broken families, cultural and religious divides. Haji approaches the Pakistani and Muslim identity from a very unique and ambitious perspective in her second book: that of an evangelical Christian family. While Jo isn’t a fundamentalist about her faith, she does ascribe to what her parents have taught her. But in her teenage years, her doubts about her true identity, aroused by the disquieting fact that she doesn’t have the same color of eyes as her parents. This leads her to chasing loose threads of her past that she hopes will reveal the truth about her true identity.

Because I’d stopped talking, too, long ago, never sharing my own doubts with you, the wall of them you helped me climb over, the truth I learned and put away on a shelf before the war even began. . . . because I refused to share the knowledge that was born of those old doubts that I hadn’t managed to overcome. (Part III, Chris, 273)

When Jo uncovers the secret her mother (a runaway from home who became pregnant by a Pakistani lad in LA) has been keeping from her: that her biological father is Muslim, she begins an irrevocable quest across boundaries of language and faith, against the backdrop of the War on terrorism, and across the world from United States to Pakistan and later Iraq. Perspective shifts to Sadiq Mubarak, as he recalls his childhood in Karachi, and how his grandparents, by way of manipulation unbeknownst to him, separated him from his mother after his manic-depressive father took his own life. Sadiq lived a privileged life under his wealthy grandfather’s roof—a spoiled existence that brought trouble with far-fetched consequences in years to come.

It never occurred to me. That Abbas Uncle would later use the name of that same God against me. That he had consulted with lawyers and mullahs—all of them men. That they had told him that Sadiq belonged to him. That after he was weaned, I had no right to my own son. (Part IV, Deena)

The most harrowing and memorable voice comes from Deena, who was tricked by her in-laws to give up her son. Although she was attracted to Sadiq’s father, she never loved him. After all, deception wrought on her tricked her into a marriage with a mentally unstable man in times of er family fiscal failure. Deena gave up enough of her life for the mistakes of others, and has been a victim of chasms of sectarian divides in the Muslim world. As Jo immerses herself int the studies of Urdu and Arabic, she uncovers all the back stories of the intricate, multicultural relationships that have shaped her as a person. The many experiences of her newly found relatives are indelibly intertwined with her own. As the novel speeds up to a strong ending, for all the characters beyond the question of forgiveness and reconciliation, there is peace. The burden of all that has been done to them, and all that they have done to others as a result are relieved. All the thoughts and feelings that have taken many years to developed are aired out. Despite the book’s slow start, and the occasional jumbled and muddled stories, The Sweetness of Tears illustrates that we’re not so different after all, and that nothing is ever as it seems. Whether it’s love or loss, they are all part of the human experience that shapes us and binds us together.

370 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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2 Responses

  1. I love that stories that really get to thirst of being human. I have a copy of this…must move it up in my stacks!

    • It’s a very complicated story, partly because it’s going backward in time. Also the family has a multicultural background and that it’s spread over three countries. My head was in the fog during the first half but then the plot moves forward and has a strong ending.

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