We first meet the hero of Sameer Rahim’s debut novel as he’s sitting on a garden swing, kicking his heels. The location smacks of child’s play, but Asghar has business to attend to. It’s his wedding day, and as his family squeeze into saris and bathrooms, Asghar mugs up on the necessaries.
A “tatty red booklet” rests on his lap. Passed down the younger generations as a nuptial talisman, The Making of an Islamic Marriage is rumoured to describe “in unblushing detail the true path to satisfying marital sex”. Flicking through the pages, Asghar finds himself unenlightened: “Written by a Pakistani mullah and printed in Birmingham in the early Nineties, it was mostly a rundown of the prayers to be performed on the wedding night… the diagrams seemed to have been cribbed from the same biology textbook he knew from school. And its language was euphemistic to the point of obscurity (there was much talk of ‘tillage’ and ‘cultivation’).” Later, in the hotel room, 19-year-old Asghar manages neither cultivation nor tillage, and Zahra, his bride, gets into her pyjamas.
Post-wedding, the novel unfolds, alternating between perspectives. Zahra is the older and more experienced of the pair. She has a degree from Cambridge, and an ambition to move up in the world of banking. Her engagement (confirmed after just three dates) seems, to university friends, absurd. It must, they reckon, be a rebound affair. But for Zahra, this is a more complicated move. Marrying a boy from the mosque back home is a leap of faith as well as a backwards step. Asghar’s conservatism feels comforting to her. His firm beliefs allow her to outsource her rootless anxieties. He’s also a project of kinds. “She wanted him to learn the lessons she had learned in Cambridge, where people floated freely above history and politics.” For Asghar, his impossibly glamorous wife is a prize, both symbol and ideal.
The honeymoon is predictably terrible: a queasy mixture of selfies, scraps of Islamic and Christian history and bad sandwiches. Back in their Kilburn fixer-upper, they flick between channels and eat microwaved curry. When a romantic comedy begins, and Zahra turns it off, Hollywood, like Asghar’s red booklet, feels like yet another narrative dead end.
Lost and lonely, Asghar secretly joins an all-male Islamic discussion group run by a charismatic Sheikh. He finds camaraderie there, but the group’s views on gender become increasingly strident, in a way that’s hard to square with Asghar’s lived experience. To have a working wife like Zahra is seen, by the group, as a failure of masculinity – and a failure of faith. The Sheikh takes Asghar out for a kebab, and another pamphlet is thrust into his hands. Asghar doesn’t even bother to read it. He admires Zahra’s independence. Her determination to be an equal partner is precisely what drew him to her in the first place. But the group’s insistent message begins to haunt him. For Zahra, meanwhile, religion “was a genre” she had outgrown. The pair drift painfully apart, each in search of a plot.
Asghar and Zahra has its own intriguing relationship with other genres and plots – and with the tradition of stories of marriage more broadly. Ian McEwan is a tempting comparison (the book has been described as On Chesil Beach for British Muslims) – but this is a funnier account with deeper roots. Swerving between social comedy and a coming-of-age tale, Austen and Joyce flicker just beneath the surface. The ghost of Middlemarch is here too.
Rahim – formerly an editor on the Telegraph books desk, now Managing Editor of Prospect magazine – is interested not just in the couple’s own relationship, but in the tensions between their respective communities. Zahra’s family are hungry for change, while Asghar’s background is more “buttoned-up and traditional”. One delicately drawn vignette catches a moment when these differences seemed irrelevant – a flashback to the small Zahra and even smaller Asghar playing in the mosque crèche: “She tickled his stomach and he laughed. She pursed her lips into a half-smile, as though unsure how to continue the fun. His hair had been combed into a neat side parting: she ruffled it up and moulded him two horns.”
The smiles and half-smiles here are telling. Grins punctuate these pages – in flirty, broad, brief and emoji form, all essentially enigmatic. For at this story’s heart is an interest in how we conjure other people’s mystery – a fascination for other people’s humour, in the deepest sense of the word. Zahra’s uncertainty remains pressing, too. How “to continue the fun” is a question that threads through the novel, as it tests the limits of the comic genre. Where is the place for play, Rahim seems to ask, when we face the serious matters of identity and extremism? Asghar, for Zahra, may come dangerously near to being a figure of fun (he is “a bit of a fundo”, she idly muses). But if Asghar and Zahra flirts with caricature, it is never wedded to it. Irony, Rahim suggests, can be as rigid a position as faith. Elegant, provocative, and clear-eyed, this beautifully pitched novel asks new questions about what imagination means, and what it costs.
Asghar and Zahra is published by JM Originals at £12.99. To order your copy for £10.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop