Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
It wasn't until the middle of the story that The Writing On My Forehead nearly broke my heart. And the scene that did it wasn't anything remarkable: it was when Saira decides to lie to her mother about playing Rizzo in her school's production of Grease. Prior to that, although I was enjoying the book, nothing had really moved me very emotionally. But then it hit me, the line that Saira was crossing, and I was touched.
Nafisa Haji creates a very personal microcosm around her narrator, but this does not prevent her from weaving a story of many layers. We get more than a glimpse at the intricacies of life in Saira's extended Indo-Pakistani Muslim family, the social contract that exists among family members and the obligations one has to fulfil as a result. Beyond her family, international events progress at their own pace; though Saira becomes a globetrotting journalist, the narrative is confined to Los Angeles, London, and Karachi and the events important to Saira and her family. The only international event to intrude is September 11, and that's because it indirectly affects Saira's life—and the life of her sister, Ameena.
Although not didactic by nature, Haji's novel is a useful reminder of the heterogeneity of Islam—both Saira and her slightly more conservative mother express concern when Ameena begins to wear a hijab, for instance. I liked that Haji chose not to present Saira's mother and family as villains pressuring Saira to marry out of a misguided sense of morality; they were just concerned parents who genuinely believed that this was the only way Saira would be happy. The characters of The Writing On My Forehead, from rebellious gay Mohsin to erudite Big Nanima, are dynamic and three-dimensional. Even Saira's mother eventually chooses to reconcile with her estranged half-siblings, partly due to Saira's influential journalism. This is not a book of paper-thin characters following strict moral codes; it's a sandstorm of the conflicting and corroborating moral decisions of an extended family.
Indeed, Haji demures from any specific themes of morality, choosing instead to talk about choice and destiny, culminating in perhaps the most poignant line in the entire book: "You won't understand this now, Saira. Later, perhaps. When you are older. When you learn that life is not only about the choices you make. That some of them will be made for you." At its core, The Writing On My Forehead is a chronicle of the push/pull, personal choice versus familial obligation, and a desperate desire to fulfil both.
The book is also about sisterhood: Saira and Ameena, Nanima and Big Nanima, Mummy and her two other sisters. There are parallels in the relationships of each of these categories, but they operate on a less explicit level than the book's other themes. Marriage came between Nanima and Big Nanima, as it almost comes between Saira and Ameena. Each of these sisters chooses a different lifestyle, one that appears to work for them, although the others don't always understand how this can be so. Isn't that always how it is, though?
The only problem with this book, in my opinion, is the narrative style. The majority of the story takes place during a flashback; that's fine, except that by the time we arrive back at the "present," I had begun to forget what the present was. Perhaps that's a compliment to Haji's ability to draw me into the story and the life of her character. Nonetheless, the flashback presents some difficulty. The first part of the book chronicles Saira's time as a child, up until her college years. Then it skips forward five years to a time just prior to the present. Haji does this in order to conceal the revelation that Saira's niece, Sakina, is actually her daughter, the result of an unintentional pregnancy adopted by Saira's infertile sister. I can tell that this twist is supposed to be eye-opening and shocking, particularly because it happens after Saira's sister is shot and her niece, only six years old, has to deal with her "mother's" death. Yet I think I would have preferred experiencing all of this linearly; instead of a five-year gap, I would have liked to know from the beginning that Sakina is Saira's child. There seems to be little reason to conceal this from us, beyond the pure shock value.
The Writing On My Forehead is a profound read, but not as moving as I usually expect from similar books. It made me think about culture, family, and duty. Aside from what's really a technical flaw, this book is quite good, so I won't hesitate to recommend it to those who are interested.