‘The Good Children’ by Roopa Farooki

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‘The story begins and ends in a place that no longer exists, and was even then disappearing. In Lahore, the Punjab, India’.

The Good Children, Roopa Farooki, Pg.7

I received my first review copy a couple of weeks ago from Tinder Press via the BookBridgr website and after Angela Carter week finished I picked up Roopa Farooki’s new novel with a hesitant excitement. The Good Children follows the lives of four siblings from Lahore, Pakistan, growing up in the 1940s. Spanning from childhood to adulthood, the Saddeq siblings begin their tale before the ‘cracking open of a country’, which resulted in Indian partition – though this is only mentioned briefly with a childlike innocence. The older brothers, Sulaman and Jakie, along with their two younger sisters, Mae and Lana, make up what looks like a traditionally normal and happy family. However, beneath this facade is a tyrannical and manipulative mother beating any disobedience out of her children so that they mould into ‘the good children’ she wants them to be.

‘[…] she now had a perfect balance in our household. One man to put up on a pedestal, […]. Two girls to cosset […]. Jakie and I didn’t really matter to her; our presence was enough, the heir and spare, and we just had to do our assigned task of studying so we could leave the house as soon as possible, so she could boast about our achievements to her friends and acquaintances, and publicly mourn our absence’.

The Good Children, Roopa Farooki, Pg.44

Beginning with the first-person narratives of Sulaman and Jakie, respectively, we witness the Saddeq family history in flashbacks. In the present, 1962, Sully is in America studying psychology whilst Jakie is in England training to become a doctor. We learn that their lives have been planned for them, with meticulous care, from the minute they were born. They would undoubtedly take their father and their grandfather’s profession as their own and in order to succeed their mother forces them to follow a strict timetable of extra schooling and study at home.

In stark contrast, their sisters are dressed up like dolls and taught to be good housewives. When Mae comes back from school one day, aged 15, with immaculate grades, her mother immediately removes her and starts to plot her marriage – as Jakie sums up: ‘The purpose of our sisters’ education was marriage’ (pg.65). The gender divide in this family is strikingly clear-cut. However, what I liked about Farooki’s novel is how understanding both brothers are of the plight of their younger sisters. Although they resent the pressures placed on them to succeed academically, they realise that their sisters don’t have it any easier than they do. They realise that they each have a huge responsibility and burden to share and that no matter how well any of them do, in the public or private sphere, they will never be good enough in their mother’s opinion. However, both Sully and Jakie realise how easy it is for them to leave Pakistan in order to further their education and never come back. They are each consumed with guilt for leaving Mae and Lana to their ill-fated marriages.

As the siblings gravitate away from the family home their mother’s hold begins to fade and they can finally begin to ‘find themselves’ and the people they would like to become (if this is sounding like a cliché that’s because it is). Without the overbearing presence of their mother breathing down their necks, they are able to make important life decisions that inevitably offend and disappoint her. Although not much occurs in terms of events, The Good Children is driven along by reality and at times it can be a quiet and subtle read. Despite crossing many continents and cultures, the familial relationships are of the everyday and most people can relate to The Good Children in one way or another. However, Farooki does manage to include many social critiques of Pakistani culture that are still relevant today. From the blame of rape placed on the female to the dominant patriarchal society and traditions the country is still steeped in, there is much to criticise about the place the Saddeq siblings have been brought up in.

‘How disgusting we were, how shameful we were. Disgrace, Dishonour, Disobedience. How we’d filled her heart with darkness […]. Divorcees for daughters, sons who slept with sodomites and half-breed Hindu whores’.

The Good Children, Roopa Farooki, Pg.448

The novel’s form interested me slightly as I think this was the main reason why I had such difficulty enjoying the book. Despite the many references to the gender inequalities between the Saddeq brothers and sisters, Mae and Lana never play a central role. The Good Children is split into three parts: Good Sons, Good Daughters, 1938-1962/ Good  Sisters, Good Brothers, 1961-1997/ Good Fathers, Good Mothers, 1962-2009. In Part One and Three the first-person narrative switches from Sulaman to Jakie alternately. The middle section is occupied by the younger sisters, though their alternating stories are told in the third-person which has the effect of distancing them from the story. They are not given a voice and more often than not their stories are told by either Sully or Jakie instead. I also found the first-person narratives to be indistinct from one another to the point where the brothers just merge into one (they even use the exact same phrases). I couldn’t help but compare it to Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible which is so cleverly written that if I were given an extract from any one of the Price daughters I would be able to tell you who it was straight away. So in this respect, Farooki’s The Good Children failed to engage me as much as I thought it would.  Though perhaps this is just personal preference as I have read a number of glowing reviews already.

Roopa Farooki is a well-established writer who has been compared to the likes of Jhumpa Lahiri and Mhamila Shamsie. She has been long listed twice for the Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction) with her books The Way Things Look To Me and The Flying Man and was shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers with her first novel Bitter Sweets. Although The Good Children was the first novel of hers I have read I was left feeling a little disappointed by the hype. After reading Lahiri’s most recent novel The Lowland, I can see the comparison between the subject matter (such as the strong ties of family and familial duty) but the writing style is nowhere near on par with Lahiri’s powerful, yet subtle, prose. Maybe I need to read Farooki’s Orange Prize nominated novels to work out where this comparison comes fromHowever, there is much to like about The Good Children. Despite its size – over 600 pages – I found the novel quick and easy to read. In fact, I wished at times that more had been written of certain events. I also found the characters likeable and keenly felt the poignancy and difficulty of returning home – as the front cover states: ‘Leaving home is one thing. Going back is another’.

Thanks to Tinder Press for the review copy.

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