Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan. Who can resist that tag line?
Soniah Kamal has moved Jane Austen’s most famous romance to a brand new setting. The Bennets are now the Binat family living in Pakistan in the early 2000s.
Unmarriageable sticks closely to the original plot: Five impoverished sisters are under pressure to find husbands.
Like the Bennets in the original novel, the Binats are hanging onto their privileged status by their fingernails. Conned out of money by unscrupulous relatives, Mrs Binat is determined to marry her daughters to wealthy men.
Culture and Customs
It’s Unmarriageable’s differences from Pride and Prejudice that make it so readable. This retelling stands out from the other spin-offs (and there are so, so many others!) because of the glimpse it offers into Pakistan’s culture and customs.
Soniah Kamal’s descriptions of clothes and food pulled me in. At one point, I started googling recipes. She beautifully illustrates a society wedding, which replaces Jane Austen’s Regency balls as prime husband-hunting territory.
It’s this local wedding that brings Alysba ‘Alys’ Binat (Elizabeth Bennet) and her beautiful older sister, Jena, into contact with two wealthy out-of-town men; rude Valentine Darsee and his friend Bungles.
But, Alys hasn’t attended to search for a husband. She’s fiercely protective of her single status and supports herself and her family by teaching English.
She tells her students that marriage isn’t the only route to happiness (which goes down as well as you’d expect at a school for wealthy girls, that prioritises obedience and matrimony).
Alys isn’t the only female character to have more independence in a modern setting. I love the way Darsee’s cousin, Annie, who’s silent in Pride and Prejudice, is given a voice here and isn’t defined by her health problems. Alys’ fourth sister, Qitty, is turned into an artist who refuses to change herself, despite social pressure.
Sadly, there’s also a flip-side; most women are dependent on men. Alys sums up the situation, saying: “behind every Pakistani girl who fulfilled a dream stood a father who allowed her to soar instead of clipping her wings”.
Mr Binat, despite his laid-back attitude, denies his youngest daughter the chance to work as a model and doesn’t always see his daughters as equal to sons.
Romance is also fraught with issues. The loving, respectful relationship between the Binat girls’ aunt and uncle contrasts with a rejected suitor who tells Alys that she’s ‘lucky’ he doesn’t believe in acid attacks.
Alys’ pragmatic friend Sherry (Charlotte Lucas) puts up with unpleasant situations in her search for a husband. In one ‘look-see’, an elderly man demands a massage and makes her read explicit information aloud, in front of both of their families.
Pride and Privilege
The Binat sisters and their less affluent friend Sherry are constrained by society’s expectations of women, but I’d imagine they’re still better off than the housekeepers and other staff who work to keep them comfortable. Like Austen, Soniah Kamal focuses on the comparatively well-off.
Alys and her sisters no longer have pots of money but their fluent English is a sign of privilege and a globe-trotting childhood. Characters talk about the way their Pakistani identity encompasses their everyday use of English. Darsee asks Alys: “you talked of a Pakistani Jane Austen. But will we ever hear the English or Americans talk of an equivalent?”
At this point, Unmarriageable gets a bit meta. Darsee and Alys enjoy reading and their conversations come across as a love letter to literature, both in English and other languages. Characters talk constantly about Jane Austen but never realise that they’re reliving the book they idolise.
Verdict: Enjoyable, funny and wonderfully readable, Unmarriage is the perfect Valentine’s Day novel. The characters are likeable and the romance follows a well-trodden path. There may not be any major surprises in the plot but Soniah Kamal makes sure that Alys ends up in a partnership based on mutual respect.