Every so often I come across a book that rejuvenates my love for reading and reminds me of the importance of fictional worlds in which I can immerse myself completely.
I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of Ayesha at Last through a Twitter giveaway hosted by the wonderful S.K. Ali (@SajidahWrites). She’s the author of Saints and Misfits, which also features a complex Muslim protagonist, go check it out! A review of the book wasn’t requested but when you come across a story as moving as this one, you can’t help but want to share your thoughts with the world.
When I initially opened my package, I was in awe of the physical marvel of its blue, intricately patterned and a gradient around the faceless hijabi on the cover. It almost looks like she’s glowing.
I was actually gearing up for a short nap before some task or another later that evening and I told myself I’d only read a chapter or two at the most. Was I ever wrong about that.
I spent the next couple of hours on my bed, shifting from one corner to the other, trying not to devour the book too quickly but eager to see how its plot was meant to unfold. It was nothing short of a whirlwind and I felt a sense of excitement even after having finished it that stayed with me for days. Finally a romance novel that didn’t seem so far-fetched in the context of my life. Finally a way to explain certain religious etiquette that may be hard to grasp but isn’t all that strange to me, because, well, it’s my lived experience.
I sighed a happy sigh and wondered how long I would have to wait before picking it up and reading it all over again.
I don’t want to give too much of the plot away but here’s what one can expect from reading Ayesha at Last. A clever and swoon-worthy ode to Shakespeare (the English major inside of me melted many times), side characters that are just as compelling as the protagonists (Ayesha’s younger brother, Idris, is going places with his coding and I’d absolutely read an entire novel about his coming-of-age), strong values, dialogue so authentic you feel can vividly imagine the scene playing out, and – of course! – a simultaneously heartbreaking and tender love story that takes place between flawed characters that you just want to be happy.
I think my favourite part about this love story is that there was never a point where I felt like it sacrificed the realism that made it so relatable. The conflict was dramatic, yes, but entirely plausible. And the way the protagonists felt the inner turmoil of dealing with its aftermath was the best part.
I mean, I wanted them to be happy but life isn’t always straightforward and simple. I felt like Uzma Jalaluddin captured that tension brilliantly. And for those of you who haven’t read it, go and get your copy so you, too, can indulge in the many ways this novel will break and then heal your heart.
And, lastly, a semi-spoiler below because I’d like to conclude by saying that Uzma Jalaluddin invented halaal banter. Here’s just a little snippet of the game-changing moment:
“Do you believe men and women can be friends?” she asked,
“I do not think that men and women should be alone together or spend time with each other. That would be inappropriate.”
“You’re sitting here with me.”
Khalid thought about this. “I probably shouldn’t be.”
“You can leave any time. Your car is right there.”
“I wouldn’t want to leave you alone in the dark.”
“I’m an independent woman.”
Khalid was silent again. “I don’t want to leave,” he said.
She did THAT. And she did it with nuance, grace, and most importantly, she preserved the Swoon. I think I had to put the book down after that chapter. When you read this book, it’ll enrich your quality of life and, if you’re not Muslim or aren’t aware of Islamic values and customs, then at the very least it’ll offer you perspective.
Last thing, truly, I promise. I know it’d be foolish of me to claim that reading this book is the ultimate guide on how love, romance, and relationships go down in Muslim communities or between Muslims, but hey, it’s one more perspective in the form of a book that we didn’t have before. And while Jalaluddin isn’t obligated to carry the weight of representing all Muslims on her shoulders, she should definitely be applauded for taking on a much-needed point of view and carrying it out with a truth and eloquence that is unique to her.