28th Feb 2012
A Small Fortune by Rosie Dastgir
Rosie Dastgir’s début novel A Small Fortune is a story about a man straddling two worlds; as described while poised on the Greenwich Meridian Line, he has ‘one foot in the eastern hemisphere and one in the west.’
Harris Anwar – born Haaris – anglicises his name and his life when he leaves Pakistan to follow his lover to England, abandoning an alternative wife, and future.
Unable to commit to either English or Pakistani life, the cultures of his past or his present, this self-described ‘Eastern Westerner’ drifts unsuccessfully through both.
The novel, too, seems to follow Harris in his lack of conviction, as the characters become increasingly estranged not just from each other but from the reader.
Newly divorced, and distanced from his grown daughter Alia and sometimes-scheming extended family, Harris’ life starts to crumble around him like his dilapidated home and failing corner shop.
The things he took pride in – his very English career, his future-doctor daughter, his avoidance of the Pakistani communities in the north of England – disappear, as he finds himself running a shop in one of the grim northern towns he previously scoffed at. A divorce settlement offers a possible escape, but opportunity slips through his fingers.
Alia, too, is left in a sort of limbo, forced to re-evaluate her goals on the edge of adulthood when she fails her first set of medical school exams.
She rejects her father’s past, literally fleeing his home village in Pakistan when he takes her to visit; but she also seems to run from any clear future. She successfully rejects her father’s uninvited plan for her future, but comes up with no alternative.
Alia finds no freedom in her quest for independence. She lives with her white boyfriend and is welcomed into his bohemian-posh family, but feels equally out of place in this world, and finds no sense of purpose in her series of menial jobs.
Other characters in Harris’ orbit – such as his recently-widowed love interest and his nephew dabbling in radical Islamic circles – have potentially interesting and distinct storylines that eventually blur into one another.
The characters all face different circumstances, but respond emotionally in strikingly similar ways, almost to the point of tedium. As the characters descend en masse into depression, they draw further into themselves in a way that is both realistic and alienating.
I feel like I’ve read other stories like this before, which offered more engaging perspectives on immigration, alienation and self-discovery. Although A Small Fortune has moments of intimate poignancy and well-observed bleak realism, ultimately it feels as if it has nothing new to say, even throughout the novel itself.
Recommended for: People feeling lost in London.