Review by Jieun Lee
Harper Avenue, HarperCollins Publishers, 2018
339 pages, paperback, $22.99 CAD, ISBN 978-I-44345-584-8
Ages 17+, Grades 12+
New Adult, Contemporary Realism, Romance
Ayesha took a deep, steadying breath and focused her mind. Then, in a different voice, one rich with melody, she began to recite:
What do you see when you think of me,
A figure cloaked in mystery
With eyes downcast and hair covered,
An oppressed woman yet to be discovered?
Do you see backward nations and swirling sand,
Humpbacked camels and the domineering man?
Whirling veils and terrorists
Or maybe fanatic fundamentalists?
Do you see scorn and hatred locked
Within my soul,
Or perhaps a profound ignorance of all the world as a whole?
Uzma Jalaluddin’s debut novel, Ayesha at Last, is a New Adult reimagining of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that explores prejudice and racial discrimination in Toronto. Twenty-seven-year-old Ayesha is a new substitute teacher for a classroom full of preteen terrors, but secretly writes and performs poetry at a local lounge. Khalid works for a web development company and has long accepted that romance doesn’t begin until after marriage. He is a secret foodie and loves cooking, much to the annoyance of his mother. Struggling against familial expectations, their own prejudices about each other and Islamophobic employers, Ayesha and Khalid put their own desires and dreams aside, thinking they are doing it out of duty to their families. But they soon find out that the more they try and control their lives, the more it seems destined to come apart.
The novel effectively utilizes third-person limited point of view by switching between Ayesha and Khalid’s perspectives. This exemplifies the tension between their personal longing and family loyalty as the conflicts between Ayesha and Khalid and their family members reach a dramatic apex that forces all the characters to confront the consequences of trying to control others’ behaviours for pride’s sake.
Although readers familiar with Austen’s novel may try and predict the plot, Ayesha at Last refuses to bind itself to typical adaptations that follow the original plot and character development too closely. Despite the fact that it captures Pride and Prejudice in essence with the romance between two reluctant characters who must overcome internal and external prejudices, Jalaluddin makes the story her own with some necessary alterations. However, like the original, there are no explicitly sexual scenes. Jalaluddin creates an intense intimacy through quick and thoughtful dialogue that makes even the slightest of touches between Khalid and Ayesha fiercely electric.
Although the main characters’ initial prejudices delay them from admitting their feelings for each other, they are actually two gentle, introverted characters who are convinced that they do not deserve love. Along with plenty of mouthwatering descriptions of South Asian cuisine, Ayesha at Last is the perfect novel for our current climate, reminding us that despite our best efforts, it is easy to discriminate against beliefs that are different from ours, and that acceptance and tolerance begin with our own thoughts and behaviours toward others.
As the characters in the novel are in their late twenties, the novel does fit into the New Adult category, where characters navigate new careers and life changes and serious relationships for the first time. However, because the novel is not explicitly sexual and also deals with common themes seen in YA romance like miscommunication, overcoming challenges with authority, and choosing personal dreams over familial expectations, Ayesha at Last could work nicely as a YA crossover selection.
Jieun Lee is a graduate student in UBC’s Master of Arts in Children’s Literature. She doodles and scribbles as much as she can and aims to tell stories of children’s experiences in immigrant families and the magical effects of food.