I confess the main reason I finally plucked this debut novel (written by its author when he was just 23) from my never-shrinking ‘to-read’ pile was because I found the audible version is narrated by Indian American actor Firdous Bamji. After finishing Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, I was missing Bamji’s transporting characterizations … alas, even Bamji couldn’t bring enough sparkle to the ultimately disappointing, overwritten family saga.
Wish Maker basically begins where it will end (don’t worry: no spoilers): narrator Zaki Shirazi arrives in his native Pakistan from his U.S. college in the first chapter to attend the wedding of his cousin-raised-as-his-sister Samar Api, the event which will mark the novel’s end. Over the 400-plus pages in between, we meet the many women – yes, the men are mostly absent – that shape and influence Zaki’s young life: his imperious, power-wielding conservative grandmother who is the family matriarch; his widowed, liberal, feminist mother often at odds with the matriarch; and, of course, his free-spirited, rule-defying cousin-sister Samar Api (who is, actually, Zaki’s father’s first cousin, the daughter of his grandmother’s younger sister, to be absolutely accurate).
Sethi gingerly overlays three generations of Pakistan’s tumultuous history – from its violent separation from East Pakistan-turned-Bangladesh to the controversial leadership of Benazir Bhutto to the country’s ongoing struggles toward democracy – with reminders of the unexpected influences of western pop culture (The Wonder Years!) and the closer-to-home fantasies created by Bollywood. Sethi is never overtly political except to allow Zaki’s mother an occasional anti-colonial diatribe, but he does remain keenly aware of the inequity of gender-based privilege throughout. Undoubtedly, the characterization of Samar Api’s mother remains the most memorable by story’s end.
I (again) confess that I don’t have any glaring, obvious reasons as to why Wish Maker eventually proved so lackadaisical a read (and listen); surely it seems to have had all the potential elements to be stupendous (including that 23-year-old wunderkind bravado!). But bottom line: at 432 hardcover pages or 11 hours in narration, such a time commitment is inevitably better spent with others … in Pakistan alone, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Kamila Shamsie, Mohammad Hanif, Mohsin Hamid, Bapsi Sidhwa all beckon with unforgettable tales.