Sunday, June 24, 2012

The House of Djinn by Suzanne Fisher Staples

The House of Djinn continues the story of Shabanu, ten years into the future. Shabanu has continued to live, hidden from the Amirzai tribal clan, in their very own haveli in Lahore, along with Rahim's sister, Selma and their servant, the Christian woman Samiya. Meanwhile her daughter, Mumtaz (Muti), who lives in the home of her Uncle Omar and his wife Leyla and their son, Jaffar, has grown into a fifteen year old.

The novel opens with Shabanu deciding she has had enough of living in secret. After all these years, she has a deep need to see Mumtaz, and plans to leave the haveli and return to her parent's home in Cholistan to teach the desert women how to read and write. But she first sends a message to Ibne, Rahim's devoted servant, letting him know that she is alive. When Selma discovers that Shabanu has been wandering outside the haveli, she finally agrees to arrange a meeting between Mumtaz and Shabanu. When this occurs, Muti has mixed feelings. She is both happy and angry to learn that her mother is alive. Muti wonders how this will change the plans she has for her life.

Meanwhile, Leyla is still up to her scheming, evil ways, using Muti as a servant and now trying to marry her off to a local farm boy. Muti refers to these and other abuses as her auntie's "thousand pinpricks". She has grown into an independent, intelligent young woman, like her mother. Muti plays tennis at the Lahore Club and often meets her friend Fariel. Her meetings with her friend are a front for secret meetings with Jag, a Hindu boy whom Muti has fallen for. She knows the relationship is a dangerous one because her Muslim family would never allow her to marry a Hindu boy.

Muti has also become good friends with her first cousin once removed, Jameel, a fifteen year old boy who was born and raised in San Francisco. Jameel's family's yearly visits have allowed the two to grow close, sharing stories, secrets and dreams. Like Muti, Jameel has his own dreams and has fallen for a Jewish girl named Chloe who is a skateboarder. When he and his family suddenly leave San Francisco to fly to Lahore because of Grandfather's illness, he has just begun a relationship with this girl. He wonders what will happen to his life. And he is about the find out that this journey will change his life forever.

Against this family background is the drama of Grandfather's death. Grandfather, who is really Mahsood, Rahim's brother, was the leader of the Amirzai clan. His death means that a new leader must be chosen and the choice is somewhat predictable, given the author's considerable foreshadowing of who that might be. Not only that but these new plans involve Muti in a way that will guarantee and safeguard her life within the clan.

Muti and Jameel rebel against the clan's plan's for their lives. Both Uncle Omar and the maulvi explain to Jameel that he is not American and that he has a duty to the clan. If he turns his back on his family, he will lose them forever. He also tells Jameel that mahabbat or love in Pakistani culture is different from love in America. Love in Pakistan involves "tradition, piety, duty and family." He promises Jameel that he will be able to return to America and that he and Mumtaz will be able to attend college together.

Staples incorporates the idea of the djinn, a spirit, to guide Mumtaz but especially Jameel during this life-changing situation. The djinn is subtly woven in and out of Jameel and Mumtaz's stories. For Jameel it both saves and guides him throughout. For Mumtaz, it indicates that all is not well with Baba. The touch of paranormal in this novel is well done and will be of interest to young readers. The title, The House of Djinn is a reference to the House of Amirzai which is honoured by a spirit that inhabits both the old haveli and the house Omar and Leyla live in.

Overall I enjoyed this finale to the Shabanu series. It was well written and interesting but it was difficult for me as a Westerner to understand the decision of the Amirzai clan regarding Jameel and Muti. I found it hard to believe that Jameel's family would allow the clan to take a fifteen year old boy, who has lived his entire life in America, marry him off to an equally immature young woman and make him a tribal leader in a country like Pakistan, without telling him until circumstances forced doing so. I also felt it was terrible of Omar to put this responsibility on a boy when he himself refused this same duty to his father years earlier. His response to Jameel was unsatisfactory - that for Pakistan to survive the country needed people like a fifteen year old boy to run the tribal clans and introduce new ideas?? Omar refused Jameel's right to determine what kind of life he wanted to live. Having friends from Pakistan they told me this could happen but it would be very unusual.

I didn't like the author's tendency to give descriptions of events that occurred in previous books. This was repetitive and drew the reader away from the present narrative. For readers new to the series, this means they can pick up the book and read it as a stand alone, but for those who have read the previous two novels, it's a distraction.

Suzanne Staples does a good job of creating an exciting and unexpected climax to the story and using Uncle Omar to explain what will happen to Muti and Jameel. I'd love to see another book perhaps eight years into the future with Muti and Jameel in America, telling us what has happened to them and maybe further developing the storyline of Omar and Shabanu. This series is highly recommended for those readers interested in other cultures.

Book Details:
The House of Djinn by Suzanne Fischer Staples
New York: Frances Foster Books 2008
207 pp.

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