Book Review - The Wish Maker unfolds a cultural tapestry of contemporary Pakistan

An eloquent debut from a promising new voice, Sethi appears at A Cappella Books June 14

Monday June 8, 2009 09:00 am EDT

About a month ago on "The Daily Show," Jon Stewart began a segment about Pakistan by describing it as a “distant and mysterious land of spice and anger.” After momentarily feigning interest in the country's history and culture, he admitted, “Actually, we really just care about the nuclear arsenal.” That wry jab at single-minded reporters might amuse Ali Sethi, who's written an earnest and deeply considered debut novel about Pakistan without pandering to the interests and clichés that dominate our nightly news. The Wish Maker is a family saga that gracefully unfolds a cultural tapestry of contemporary Pakistan.

Zaki Shirazi is the intelligent, observant son of two affluent matriarchs, his grandmother Daadi and his mother Zakia. His father died while flying a military plane when Zaki was “minus two months old.” The Wish Maker begins with Zaki returning from an Ivy League education in the States to find his home, Lahore, Pakistan, changed. “There was an added estrangement from the known,” Zaki notes. “The drive home was too short, the bridge too small, the trees not high enough on the canal ... the bed in my room was just a bed.” Sethi's clearly writing from recent experience — he, too, is an affluent Ivy League-educated 24-year-old of Lahore, Pakistan. Sethi's prose, however, is written with the disciplined distance and evenhanded delivery expected from someone twice his age.  

Zaki has returned home in time to attend the wedding of Samar Api, a best friend and cousin who remained in Pakistan while he pursued his education overseas. As the novel gazes back into their shared personal history, the country around them is slowly brought to life. From adolescent daydreams of Bollywood stars to late-night runs for bootleg liquor (illegal in Pakistan), they form a loyal bond that develops against the backdrop of political turmoil.

Tensions rise as the promise of democracy arrives, embodied by Benazir Bhutto. Illuminating as it is, Sethi stuffs the backstory with subplots and supporting characters that ultimately distract from the narrative. That said, The Wish Maker is comprehensive in its vision of Pakistan, neatly balancing the tensions between cosmopolitan and traditional cultures. It's an eloquent debut from a promising new voice.

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