Shabanu is the youngest of Rahim's four wives and the only one he is interested in. Because of this, his other wives, especially his first wife, Amina and her daughter Leyla, hate Shabanu and make her life miserable. They have also threatened her and she realizes that both her and her daughter's life are in danger. Shabanu refuses to defend herself and that fuels their hatred. The wives believe she has bewitched Rahim and call her a witch. So as a first step towards protecting herself and Mumtaz, Shabanu moves into a room behind the stables, against Rahim's wishes.
Life in Rahim's family is filled with intrigue and change. Although the women appear to get along with one another, in fact, the opposite is true.
"But the women's gentle camaraderie and the laughter that rang out from the family zenana in truth covered up something else. Behind their veils, the women also plotted and schemed, usually one against another, often several against one or two, occasionally all united against one, and that one most frequently was Shabanu."Shabanu knows that the day will come when she will no longer be able to stay in the family. As the younger wife, from a desert family, with no social standing and no education, she and her daughter are in danger. Shabanu begins to consider that she may have to leave and live in the desert with Auntie Sharma not only for her own safety but that of her daughter especially.
One day when Rahim returns from Lahore, he tells Shabanu that he and his younger brother Nazir have come to an agreement which will settle their feud. He plans to marry his eldest son, Ahmed, who is an "idiot" to Nazir's only child, a daughter named Zabo. Shabanu, who was helped by Zabo when she was prepared for marriage at age twelve, is horrified by this plan. Zabo however is resigned to her fate, because although she is beautiful, she is considered unmarriageable. Nazir is the least successful of the three brothers and is a quarrelsome evil man who has made many enemies.
A second marriage has already been decided upon. Mahsood, the middle brother will see his son, Omar, marry Leyla who is Rahim and Amina's eldest daughter. This marriage will reunite the clans for the first time in over two hundred years. Omar will return soon to Pakistan, after studying overseas in America.
To prepare for Zabo's wedding which will take place before that of Leyla's, the entire family moves to Lahore. Shabanu, her daughter Mumtaz, and Zabo stay at the haveli which is Rahim's ancestral home in Lahore. It is rundown but at least they are away from the evil Amina and Leyla and the rest of the scheming wives who stay in the concrete homes in the fashionable Cantonment area.
During her time at the haveli, Shabanu meets Omar and unexpectedly falls in love with him. In Omar, Shabanu discovers what it is to love a man. He treats her with kindness and respect. Shabanu notices that he includes the women in every conversation. But she knows they can never be together. If her feelings were ever discovered she would be put to death.
Zabo does not want to marry Ahmed and she begs Shabanu to help her. Nazir has given her a huge sum of money for her dowry to buy clothing and jewels. Zabo decides that she will buy cheap, imitation jewels and save the money that Nazir has given her to use for her escape into the desert. They make arrangements for Zabo's escape but when the wedding is moved ahead by weeks, events are set in motion that result in a brutal blood feud, with catastrophic results.
Suzanne Fisher Staples manages to engage the reader from the beginning to the very end in this beautifully crafted novel about a clan in a specific area of Pakistan. We begin the novel wondering about the future of Shabanu and her daughter Mumtaz, but are quickly drawn into the terrible situation Zabo faces. In the end, Shabanu is in as much danger as Zabo, and her planning to help Zabo, ends up providing for her too.
Layered over this is the theme of a forbidden love which culminates in a truly heartrending scene at the Derawar Fort. Although she tries to push Omar from her heart, her love for him remains buried within her, while a greater love, that for her daughter must take precedence.
Shabanu is a multifaceted character, who is both fascinating and wonderful to read about. She is once again, the strong female character who does not let fate take its course, but instead plans so that she may make her own choices. She is attentive to those around her, recognizing those whose actions indicate an evil heart, and those who truly need help. She saves the servant, Zenat, who is cruelly tortured by the kitchen staff. She recognizes the difficult life her sister, Phulan has, as she bears child after child. She also hopes for more for Mumtaz, whom Amina wishes to make into a kitchen servant.
While the men around her must allow tribal customs to dictate their actions even when they know these decisions will cause great suffering (usually to the women), Shabanu is willing to consider other ways.
Once again Suzanne Staples writing makes accessible and real, the unique cultural life of a small part of Pakistan. We often talk about books being a window to the world. Ms. Staples opens one such window and lets us experience fully the beauty, the tragedy, the good and the bad of one such culture.
Haveli by Suzanne Fisher Staples
New York: Borzoi Books