By Lakshmi Menon
Sarvat Hasin’s This Wide Night has been described as Little Women meets The Virgin Suicides. While this is not entirely wrong and there are some clear parallels between the works, the description belies the levels of meaning the author has packed into this work, and the comparisons fall short.
The majority of the story is told through the eyes of Jimmy, who, like Laurie in Little Women, is fascinated by the women who live in the house across the street from him. As he learns more about them, to live among them and love them, so do the readers. We grow to share his fascination with the Malik sisters – the beautiful Maria, firebrand tomboy Ayesha, shy Bina and the petulant Leila, and their mother Mehrunnisa who is as lovely as she is mysterious. In the absence of the patriarch of the household, Captain Malik, these women form parts of a whole that does not leave any room for outsiders. Even as Jimmy feels welcomed into their world he is aware that he will never be completely privy to it. They share “an invisible net of sisterhood” that he cannot penetrate, try as he may.
Through the course of the novel, we watch Jimmy try to find a balance for the failings of his own life. A loner in many respects, it is in this intimate shared space that he is invited into that he finds solace, even as he is aware that their world isn’t exactly considered “ordinary”.
“No one lived as these girls did, no other mother would have allowed these freedoms. But even this freedom was not boundless. There were things you could live in the world without and things you could not. This was not a city for hiding sins or secrets.”
The isolation of the Malik girls from society in general becomes a real, physical thing in the latter part of the book, when circumstances force them to move to an island off Karachi, and Jimmy is aware of what it entails to share a roof with the women.
This Wide Night is a work that represents the Pakistan of the late sixties and the early seventies in a way that is familiar and relatable to readers. The city of Karachi is a living, breathing space, that is never described in detail but we come to learn about it anyway. One of the most fascinating aspects of the novel is the way we are reminded of the idea of personal histories, “the moveable history of the world” as Jimmy calls it. Amir, the schoolteacher who falls in love with and marries Maria, is a child of Partition, and through him, and the stories of Jimmy’s grandfather, we are reminded of how trauma is carried over through generations and the necessity for keeping the narratives alive. Just as significant is the war that rages through the second half of the novel. War is real and raw in This Wide Night, in how it ravages through lives and changes the world from the familiar to something dangerous in the span of an instant.
The myriad narrative threads in This Wide Night come together as the novel draws to its close. Bringing together ideas of love, loneliness, grief and mourning, the final act is surreal, elements of magic realism creeping in as it moves towards a conclusion that seems both strangely inevitable and haunting.
The reviewer Lakshmi Menon tries to concentrate on her day job teaching English to college students, but she is constantly distracted by shiny things. She dreams of someday winning awards for the best piece of unwritten fiction.