I think pretty much the only interesting thing about this collection of short stories is the name of this anthology. Austenistan might be an obvious play with words, but it’s still charming and it makes the intent clear–a Pakistani version of Austen’s stories. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much the only time anyone can enjoy anything at all in this pitiful excuse of an anthology, since the stories themselves are just so awful.
Composed of seven stories, you would think at least one of the entries would have the decency to provide good writing, and yet. The foreword from Catherine Jane Knight, founder and chair of the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation, doesn’t provide any support either. Unlike forewords which talk about the content within, which seek to add on to the material by providing context, or a look at the background which led to the book’s publication, over here it feels like Ms Knight wrote the foreword without actually reading the stories contained within. Not only does she provide a generic statement about the stories prove that Pakistani society reflects Austen’s work, she also uses the opportunity to promote her own Literacy Foundation’s charity work. The blatant campaigning for aid is both irritating and liable to leave a bad taste in the mouth of the reader, even before they’ve read a single story.
I think pretty much the only thing worth recommending these stories is the fact that our Pakistani protagonists suffer from the same expectations and enforced roles as those imposed on Austen’s heroines. However, that’s more of a blanket statement rather than a compliment to the series itself, since this is a fact undeniable. While our writers manage to bring this point across pretty clearly in how women are expected to behave, what was needed was a more nuanced, better-written expression of this very fact. While the mother in the first story (The Fabulous Banker Boys by Mahlia S Lone) worries about her daughter’s personality in much the same way Mrs Bennett clucked over Elizabeth Bennett’s stubbornness, the rest of the disappointing story ruins the effect of this similarity.
Then came Elisha, her father’s pet, with bucket-loads of independence, spirit, and strong personality. No man likes a headstrong and blunt wife, she thought. However, she had to admit that the girl knew her own mind and wasn’t needy. I must teach her to at least appear more subservient and pliant.
I think one of the limitations of this anthology was that the writers felt the need to encompass all of Austen’s tale from beginning to end within the short word length assigned to them. While the hero and heroine usually take the space of a whole novel to get together, in these stories they are forced to resolve their issues in too short a time for us to care about them. Lone’s version of Elizabeth Bennett’s meeting with Mr Darcy at a party ends with them having cleared all misunderstandings by the end of the story. On its own, the story could be a great representation of Pakistani society. As an adaptation of Austen’s most beloved title, it fails spectacularly, showing us all the places where the author cannot manage to rise to Austen’s level.
The second story, an adaptation of Lady Susan (one of Austen’s lesser known works, which was never submitted by the author for publication herself), makes the mistake of being an adaptation. On its own, writer Nida Elley’s Begum Saira Returns could have been a fabulous look at a woman who doesn’t restrict herself to the social constructs within which women are expected to live. Slightly departing from the original work, Elley has sketched an image of a women who has always reached for what she has wanted shamelessly, a character trait that is so rare as to be almost invisible in Pakistani female protagonists. However, the vague morality of our character’s actions get lost in trying to trace Austen’s words and actions in our story. In this case, on its own the story could have stood up on its own two feet, maybe. As an Austen adaptation, it’s no good.
Rumours began circulating that the young bride was being too flirtatious with some of the other women’s husbands. Of course, nobody ever blamed the man, Saira thought, not considered them capable of initiating these flirtations.
Of course, all of the stories feature at least some sort of commentary on the inherent misogyny of Pakistani society, or on the sexism of the marriage traditions we follow. Unfortunately, things that resonated in Austen’s work feel like they lack any depth whatsoever in this collection. This is true even for the characters themselves, who are mostly vain and generally tedious. The wit that is so obvious in Austen’s stories is so very lacking here that it’s like the writers weren’t even trying. Ships that we have all shipped so ardently in Pride and Prejudice or Emma barely elicit any sparks on these pages. In Emaan Ever After by Mishayl Naek, we already know she’s going to end up with Haroon, the Mr Knightly to her Emma, but in this format, the feeling that this is the guy we want our heroine to ultimately end up with is barely there. That might have something to do with the fact that Emaan, like all the other characters in this story, sounds like a vapid, highly spoilt, and ultimately boring character for whom we care not a single bit. Divorced and living with her father, our Pakistani Emma spends her days using teenage text speak and making bad life decisions. Not impressive at all.
It was ridiculous that instead of thinking of a career – finally – that might actually mean something to me, I was moping over a boy.
Usually, when I review something I try to concentrate on the work and not the writer, because I’m overall a believer in the Roland Barthes idea of a dead author. Unfortunately, for these stories it’s hard not to see the shallow, one-dimensional characters as anything less than a chance for the author to show off about the number of brand names they know. With the exception of only a few stories, almost all these entries feature at least fifteen different situations in which a person’s wardrobe from the top to the bottom is described in terms of which brands they are wearing, right down to which perfume they smell like. Frankly, it’s all kinds of amazing that this anthology managed to gather so many female writers who belong to the tiny 1 percent of Pakistan’s ultra-rich community. Either that, or there must have been some condition put forth before these stories were submitted that ensured that each and every single of them had some unhealthy obsession with major international brands. Nonetheless, the idea that these are authors born with golden spoons in their mouths is overwhelming and eventually a little chafing: It’s fine to read about the super wealthy in one story, or even two, but by the fifth one it’s hard not to roll your eyes at the description of Valentino sandals or honeymoon plans in Seychelles. The Mughal Empire by Saniyya Gauhar had great potential, imagining the repercussions of the Darcy-Elizabeth marriage on Miss Bingley, whose affection for Darcy had been well known, and who now faces the shame of being so publically ignored for someone whom she considers below her station. This premise had an interesting appeal, but unfortunately the chunks of paragraph obsessed with each item of a person’s clothing managed to turn this into a really bad execution.
Here, she had bought Erum luxuries that most girls could only dream of: handbags from Hermes, Chanel, Bottega Veneta and Prada; shoes for every possible occasion in an assortment of styles and colours from Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin, Jimmy Choo, Saint Laurent, Roger Vivier and Dior; lingerie from Rigby & Peller, Agent Provocateur and Le Perla, and a designer wardrobe from some of the finest stores on Sloane Street.
Some stories barely have anything from Austen novels, using a random line from within the novels to set up a completely different premise and setting. The Autumn Ball by Gayathri Warnasuriya is another story that would have done better on its own, rather than as an adaptation. The problem with being an adaptation is that we then start looking for how it connects to the original. Warnasuriya takes one line about dancing from Pride and Prejudice to sketch a tale of a woman in a slightly unhappy marriage, whose desire to dance keeps getting thwarted by her bore of a husband. As a recently married woman trying to figure out the intricacies of a romantic relationship, I have a warm affinity for stories which feature complex husband-and-wife interactions. Unfortunately, my expectation of Austen’s touch ruined my enjoyment of Warnasuriya’s writing.
She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, it was all so much more complicated than she thought marriage would be.
This trend of a random line from P&P serving as the basis of a completely new story continues in Sonya Rehman’s Only the Deepest Love–as an aside, I think all these authors should first be told what an adaptation actually means. In this short story, we have our protagonist Samina, who is worried about her younger cousin Sobia’s contentious sex life post-marriage while trying to juggle her own family and work drama. While on the one hand the author brings up a number of important issues, the problem is that she brings up too many topics in too short a time, making it all too fleeting and pointless to actually hit their mark. Gay husband, abusive landowner’s son, privileged and spoiled students, family abuse, second marriages and their effects on children, all this gets mentioned for a period so transitory it weakens the overall narrative. Even the romance feels badly developed and rushed through, making me believe that maybe a longer word length might serve this author better. One major point that this story gained and then subsequently lost was it’s lgbtq+ representation, where the existence of a gay husband and how the wife deals with the revelation of his sexuality could have used more nuanced attention. Instead what you have is an abrupt, hasty ending, as well as a blatantly stereotypical representation of the gay character as a twirly, quirky figure, in what was a remarkable lack of sensitivity to the marginalized group the author was trying to represent.
‘Sobia’s been fretting all day, Sam,’ Asad said jovially, like an Aunt jokingly complaining about her silly daughter, ‘She was like oh my God oh my God oh my Goddddd, Sam’s sooooooo not going to make it! But I was like tsk tsk, don’t be stupid jaanu, of course she will! And look! Here you are!’ With that Asad did a little twirl, waving his spatula in the air like a wand.
I think I was hoping that the last entry, written by the editor of this anthology, would have been the saving grace of this fiasco, but it was not to be. A story better suited to the capable hands of someone like Sophie Kinsella or Jane Costello falls apart over here: in Laaleen Sukhera’s On The Verge, Roya, who has broken off her engagement to rich but fickle ‘Princey’ (it’s hard to believe that’s an actual name of a character), plans to attend a ball on the day when her fated wedding would have happened. I would tell you what happens next, but the truth is that I didn’t really care, even while forcing myself to read till the end. It was as boring to read as it will be to recount, and masochism is not my thing. Ironically enough, the only character I liked in this story was Myra, the no-nonsense older sister to our air-headed heroine, who barely appears in the narrative. Maybe if we had focused less on our imbecile of a protagonist, and more on female characters who suffer no fools, the story could have redeemed itself.
Myra had decided to pursue a career early in life and barely got the time to meet men, plus she had almost no patience for fools, which was the commodity largely on offer.
It’s really sad that this anthology doesn’t translate into literature worth reading, because even a casual reader can easily see that Austen’s stories have a very strong parallel to subcontinental traditions, particularly our fixation with families and marriages. Unfortunately, this aspect of social expectation is unable to translate into the sort of biting irony and acerbic commentary Austen had to offer. The writing in Austenistan is awkward and heavily dependent on clichés or slang phrases, in what can only be seen as a ridiculous attempt to make the stories seem contemporary. Punctuation is also a mess, with misplaced commas ensuring that my poor editorial heart is in a constant state of pain. One of my major pet peeves, that of the italicization of the desi word, also happens liberally throughout the book, and while I understand that those things are usually dependant more on the publisher’s style policy, it still serves to irritate me to no end. There’s also the fact that with seven authors and seven titles written by Austen, surely it would have been a smart move to split the stories seven ways in terms of adaptations? Instead we find that the most famous child, Pride and Prejudice, is once again given the most attention. Unfortunately, the reasons for which I loved P&P are completely lacking in this anthology: not only do we not see the kind of complex female relationships that I was exposed to in P&P, what I had to face was a backlash of severe misogyny in a number of myriad ways. And one of my most hated tropes, that of the evil female character being described as indulging in excessive makeup, reared its ugly head quite regularly:
Emane was a socialite who attended ladies’ committee lunches by day and snorted coke by night. She had ash blonde extensions with a bulbous trout pout and was wearing a sequined Moschino Pepto-Bismol pink mini dress with a crotch-skimming slit that revealed an inch of a Spanx corset. She carried a cocktail in one taloned hand and an Alexander McQueen skull clutched in the other.
Another reviewer put it best when they said that this anthology has the vibe of an ‘unpolished anthology of fan fiction written during a literary club meeting’. Honestly, there is much better writing out there, and not enough time in one’s life to read this kind of atrocious crap. Do yourself a favour, and give this a miss.