By FATIMA BHUTTO
Women have a way of taking over Fatima Bhutto's novels. Her debut was ostensibly about three brothers, but the narrative's heart and guts (and best lines) belonged to women. Similarly, in a phone interview from London, she said the relationship between two male characters is the core of The Runaways, her second novel. But really it is Layla, a fierce whirlwind of a character, who gives the novel its kinetic drive. Bhutto has said before how Pakistani women have been forced into becoming exemplars of resilience, that their spirit is indomitable.
Bhutto is not being patronising or oblivious to privilege. In The Runaways, Layla's mother is a poor woman, with two children to feed, who gives massages to fat, rich women in deluxe Clifton houses. It takes a certain indomitability to persevere, to find a way to feed the children, to work despite pain, to put up with ceaseless humiliation. Of course, the Karachi neighbourhood Clifton, specifically the compound at number 70, was the seat of the Bhuttos, the house of Fatima's grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, founder of the Pakistan People's Party. It was the house in which Fatima's Aunt Benazir Bhutto married Asif Ali Zardari. When Fatima's father Murtaza, the older of Zulfikar's two sons, was shot in a police encounter in 1996, it was Benazir and Zardari whom Murtaza's widow held responsible, at least morally. It's a position Fatima, just 14 when her father died, maintained in her 2010 memoir, Songs of Blood and Sword. She still lives in the house with Ghinwa, Murtaza's second wife, whom Fatima, born in Afghanistan to Murtaza's first, calls Mummy.
Wisely, given her family's turbulent history, Bhutto has chosen to write. She expresses her politics in her trenchant, often acerbic columns and her novels, which seek some ember of human connection in the ashes, the ravages of global politics. The genesis of The Runaways was in a 2014 discussion with European friends about migration that left Bhutto horrified, even a little disbelieving that people thought in this way. She foresaw a novella, but the characters and their journey to Mosul took over. How do young people become radicalised? For Bhutto, writing has to interrogate, it has not only to ask questions of power but also about our choices and responses.
The Runaways tells the story of how three young people come to be in Mosul, on the front lines of jihad. One of them, Sunny, grew up in Portsmouth with a Pakistani father. A widower, Sunny's father is eager to achieve the working class immigrant's British dream, a life of security and prosperity for one's children that validate the choice to leave the country of his birth. You have a home, you have a city, a country even a place in the world, Sunny's father tells him when he shows him the acceptance letter from the University of Portsmouth. His father's voice, Bhutto writes, broke with emotion. But, for Sunny, it's not enough. For Sunny, his father's attempts to integrate, his tentative attempts at moving on after the death of his severe wife and his rejection of Islam are pathetic, the actions of a floundering man. Filled with an inchoate roiling, Sunny cannot find peace or the answers to the questions that torment him until his cousin Oz returns from Syria.
Monty, another of the protagonists, is the indolent son of a wealthy property developer. His experience of the world is entirely different from Sunny's, the only humiliation Monty contemplates is what it might look like for their maid to be trailing behind them on Oxford Street. The third main character, Anita Rose/ Layla, is from Karachi, but from the bottom rungs of the social ladder, the misfortune of her poverty multiplied by her Christianity. The business of the novel is to bring these three together. And what a convoluted business it is.
In conversation, Bhutto is sympathetic, thoughtful and patient even when answering rambling questions. She brings that instinctive sympathy to bear on her writing, relaying the various plights of her young protagonists with unwavering kindness. Bhutto is particularly good at describing loneliness and dislocation. She understands how social media can be used to arm these feelings, providing the illusion of community. Some of her angriest satire is reserved for the charlatans and opportunists who find validation on social media.
Paced like an airport thriller, The Runaways can also read like one, with its ludicrously engineered plot. Too often it seems like Bhutto is ticking boxes (a dash of repressed homosexuality here, class envy there) and taking aim at caricatures rather than writing people. She is a vivid writer, but her novels collapse under the weight of their geopolitics.
The reviewer is associate
editor of India today