Review published on May 10, 2017.
After winning The Great British Bake-Off in 2015, Nadiya Hussain has taken the UK by storm, baking a birthday cake for the Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations, presenting her own TV documentary, becoming a columnist and regularly featuring on our screens, and now the woman of many talents has turned her hand to fiction, with her debut adult fiction title The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters. There was quite a bit of controversy surrounding the novel’s release in January, when a row erupted about the place of celebrities as authors in an already competitive publishing world, and it’s certainly tricky ground. But for me, as with any book, the judgement lies on the merits of the novel, and Hussain’s debut certainly justifies its place.
The title page cites Hussain as its author with Ayisha Malik, the author of Sofia Khan is Not Obliged, and more recently The Other Half of Happiness, given a subsequent mention, presumably in some form of ghost-writing or assistant role, and for anyone who’s read Malik’s own novels, Hussain’s debut fits the same billing, focusing on Muslim protagonists with sensitivity and humour. Hussain’s charges are, as the title attests, the four Amir sisters, Fatima – or the unfortunately nicknamed Fatti – the eldest, twins Farah and Bubblee, and the youngest sister, teenager, Mae. The novel takes a multiple character approach to narrating the story, with chapters alternating between the four sisters and this style of narrative can sometimes become a bit of a blur, which threatens to be even more of a problem when the four main characters are sisters, but a brilliant job is done of creating four distinct, believable and interesting individuals, which ensures not only that the narrative never becomes too confusing but allows each of the characters to emerge as very rounded and complete figures with very clear senses of their contrasting personalities and identities. For me, the youngest sister, Mae, was the standout, with her brash humour and millennial attitude, but the case can easily be made for each of the other sisters. Although Fatima and Farah’s stories were the mainstay of the novel, the larger-than-life personalities of Mae and Bubblee ensured that they never became passengers in the book. Mae and Bubblee’s stories did feel less developed, but I thought it wise not to overload the novel with each of the sisters’ problems and potentially lose some of the depth in the narrative, although it would be nice to see more of Bubblee and Mae’s lives if there is a follow-up novel.
As well as the strong sense of voice and characterisation in the novel, the humour is really engaging, and again this is in large part down to the droll Mae. But the novel also balances well the themes of the main storylines. I loved the way the cultural references were woven into the narrative too but without becoming ‘issues’ in the novel and the mix of beliefs and values, not only between East and West, but most pressingly between traditional and modern, old and young were really interesting and insightful.
All in all, this is a solid debut. It’s not going to knock anyone’s literary socks off, but it sits perfectly in the commercial fiction genre as an enjoyable, relaxing read. With a move towards encouraging diversity in fiction recently too, it contributes to this widening of the boundaries in literature, and offers a perspective and story that is great to read. If Hussain’s ‘celebrity’ status encourages someone to read the book that can only be a good thing, but more than that, this novel stands on its own merits.
Jade Craddock 4/3
The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters by Nadiya Hussain
HQ 9780008192259 hbk Jan 2017