Review by Bina Shah
Beautiful From This Angle, the debut novel by Maha Khan Phillips, is not what it seems to be. The author chooses the well-known chick-lit technique of bringing together three women friends to undergo a transformational experience, yet this book is not “chick-lit” in the strictest sense. The social scene of Karachi’s jet set is the backdrop for the events of the book, yet the book’s primary focus is not social satire. And while Phillips cleverly explores the “oppressed woman” genre of popular fiction, she stands all the tropes on their heads, in order to deliver a severe indictment of the way modern media works in a post 9-11 world.
Phillips, a Pakistani-based London journalist, certainly knows her setting well: the Karachi party crowd in all its glory is exposed and eviscerated: it’s in the midst of the cocaine-snorting, drunken, promiscuous antics that we meet Amynah Farooqi, “Party Queen on the Scene” who’s actually an Oxford graduate, wasting her life doing cocaine and sleeping with as many men as she pleases. This anti-heroine is joined by Mumtaz, daughter of a drug lord, and Henna, daughter of a feudal: three best friends who drift aimlessly along until a common cause unites them briefly before destroying them all.
Pakistan’s latest reality show, “Who Wants to Be A Terrorist?” is a huge success, and Mumtaz, a documentary filmmaker, decides she wants a piece of the action, now that the international media has decided that Islam and Pakistan are the hot topics of the day. She conspires with her friends to film a story about Nilofer, Henna’s childhood friend from the village in Rahim Yar Khan; they’ll portray Nilofer as the oppressed victim of an honor killing, sell the documentary to CNN, and whisk Nilofer away from her abusive husband to a life of ease in Karachi.
While the friends struggle with the ethical and moral issues raised by their actions, Amynah is on a quest of her own, to find true love, which she does – or thinks she does – with Kamal Khan, a television producer from Dubai, who is setting up a new television channel in Karachi. Henna is on course to marry her feudal fiance, and is unable or unwilling to change her fate. Mumtaz struggles with social acceptance; as the daughter of a drug baron, she is shunned by the It crowd, but once the documentary receives acclaim, all doors open to her, and she lands up working in politics alongside Benazir Bhutto.
But things don’t stay good for long: Kamal turns out to be unfaithful to Amynah in an unexpected way; Henna’s complicity in the documentary causes immense problems for her feudal father, and Mumtaz’s political aspirations cause a irreparable rift in the women’s friendship. Their plot has worked almost too well, setting in motion a chain of events that take the novel from dark comedy to bleak tragedy in the end.
Anyone who’s familiar with Karachi will tell you that yes, things can actually happen like that here, with fate hating you one moment, and fortune smiling on you the next. Karachi is a fickle city, full of false people, and Phillips writes about it with ease, although from time to time she crosses the line between satire and over-exaggeration to unsatisfactory effect. Social satire works best when it remains plausible, and Phillips needs to be more discerning about what’s humorous and what’s over the top. Amynah’s “Party Queen” pieces also fall a little flat, sounding like an amped up version of The Friday Time’s Girl/Man Friday column, but her attempts to write the “Oppressed Muslim Woman” novel are more original and evoke some genuine laugh-out-loud moments: “Islam bound me. Islam changed me. But I couldn’t leave here alone. Not without my dog.”
Once Phillips gets done describing the “scene”, and focuses on the story at hand, the book picks up pace and the pages turn fast, not because of the beauty of its writing or the truth of its ideas, but because the story is compelling and wicked, the characters twisted enough that you’re not sure whether you want to see them rise or fall – but you want to be there for either outcome. Her attempts to weave together all the major issues facing Pakistan today — feudalism, terrorism, the international media circus, the local media boom interlaced with the worlds of fashion and partying — sometimes become unwieldy. Her examination of these issues remains on the superficial side, relying on snappy one-liners and soundbites rather than complex insight or analysis.
There’s not much to be said in the way of character development either: we never really understand what it is that makes Amynah, Mumtaz, and Henna such good friends, or how they met, and many minor characters, including Monty the TV producer, Faisal the party boy, and Uncle Taimur the feudal, remain stereotypes rather than fully realized people, each with his own psychology and story.
But while Beautiful From This Angle may not be high literary art, it succeeds at what it sets out to do: tell a sharp, witty anti-fable about three women who tried to fly too close to the sun, and burned their wings before they fell down to earth. Heed its lesson, or ignore it at your peril.
More reviews in the South Asia Reading Challenge are listed here