Book Review: ‘The Family Tree’ by Sairish Hussain

First Published at hikayaat.com on 15 Jul 2020.

It’s set so close to home; in the British Pakistani diaspora community of Bradford from 1993-2020. The characters are so lovingly familiar, as are the authentic descriptions of them and the Bradford architecture —that with the immediate tragedy of the protagonist Zahra losing her mother at birth within the first few pages is what had me hooked. 

The characters challenge the major stereotypes of a British Pakistani Bradfordian family. The widowed father is the breadwinner and the housewife; he is present in the lives of his children; he doesn’t marry again either. The erratic and “illiterate” grandmother cooks for their white male friend and they communicate through food; Saahil and Ehsan exceed in their education; Zahra uses writing to cope with the questions posed by Karen and other classmates about her identity; being Muslim; terrorist attacks; and even her virginity.  

You could say family values are at the heart of a Pakistani family and thus are at the heart of a community, and you’d be right. That’s exactly what Hussain plays with; she plays with one’s values of family and brings it round full circle, all while pulling at your heart strings in an emotional rollercoaster ride of lows and highs. 

The highs I’m talking about are not just those interwoven in Hussain’s great literary craftsmanship, but the kind you get when smoking weed and spice. Hidden addiction is explored in context of homelessness, which is symbolic for one of the main character’s hidden identity; they mask more than an addiction; they mask who they are; where they are from; their family and friends; their roots. I found the themes of homelessness, home, and identity symbolic of the British Pakistani community’s migration journey; as they were uprooted in every sense from a familiar home to a new home they must navigate to feel at home again. 

There are many ways one can view addiction, I like Russel Brands perspective, which is that addiction masks one’s spiritual yearning at some level and that “We’re all on the scale of addiction.” and thus we are all on the scale of spiritual yearning? Perhaps. The Family tree explores this in the mist of addiction, one of characters finds themselves reaching out to local mosques for a spiritual connection; for help; for a home. It was refreshing to see the mosque in this light; serving and nourishing the vulnerable. 

Without giving too much away, it is at the mosque that there is a turning point in this character’s life. The theme of spiritual yearning, change, and healing is shown to be integral to the characters whether it’s job opportunities presenting themselves as a mosque caretaker, the ta’wiz [amulet] or the visiting of saints in and around Pakistan, or the prison sentence that brought one of the characters to the deen and thereafter to wear a green turban. A lot of this indicated to the path of Sufism; Sufism in India and Pakistan has a long history – over a 1000 years, so there’s no surprise that there is a present connection to it in the British South Asian diaspora community. This historical and religious point was woven in naturally to the lives of the British Pakistani community in Hussain’s novel, which accurately reflected the reality of many British Pakistani Bradfordians. 

The Family Tree is in many ways a coming of age novel, not just of the children, but the parents and the community too, in a pre-and-post-9/11 Britain. The debut novel is a nuanced portrayal of British Muslim Pakistanis in modern Britain, and it is certainly paving a new wave in British publishing. An absolute must read! 

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