Ayisha Malik: Sofia Khan is NOT Obliged

KhanHow can this novel go wrong? Sofia Khan is NOT Obliged is the new (I dare to say it, better) Bridget Jones. It’s intelligent, very funny, sharp, heart-breaking, witty, superbly plotted, realistic, and a feminist love story without gush. It will remind white readers who don’t have Muslim friends of Bend It Like Beckham, and it is simply a joy to read. It’s also damn well written.

Apparently Ayisha Malik, who was a publicist in a big London publishing firm (she’s now a managing editor in a literary consultancy), was persuaded to write a book about Muslim dating by her boss. So she wrote this novel about a publicist in a London publishing firm who’s having trouble dating because she’s a Muslim, and her boss asks her to write a book about Muslim dating. The meta-experiential stuff is a good joke, but the torturous progress of Sofia’s research for her book is a strong plot thread to contain the mayhem in Malik’s novel.

I began reading it after lunch on holiday and could not move from the sofa until I’d finished. I was then bereft: what happens NEXT????  I laughed out loud, I mopped the corners of my eyes a couple of times, I was totally gripped, and I was blissfully happy with the ending. No wonder it’s in the Top 25 Kindle bestsellers at the moment. Sofia Khan is only available as an ebook until the end of 2015, then its publisher, Twenty7, are bringing it out as a paperback. I’d advise them to get the paperback out sooner, because this is going to be a brilliant Christmas present.

Sofia Khan is in the supermarket looking for emergency biscuits, and she gets chatted up by the rather gorgeous Naim, just over from the USA to help his family out with their business for a few months. Sofia is getting over having to dump Imran, whom she should have married but has refused to, and is under serious collateral pressure by all the marriages shaping up around her. She’s about to try online dating: why? Her sister Maria is forging ahead to marry Tahir and move in with her in-laws (one of the things that Sofia refused to do). Her friend Hannah is determined that a polygamous marriage with Zulfi (non-legal in Britain) is what she wants, despite his existing first wife and children. The glamorous model Suj is dating another model, but he’s black: how will her family take it? And Fozia the perpetually sarcastic is swithering so hard about who she wants that she’s in a tailspin. In their world, Muslim women get to choose who they marry. Sofia’s parents may make a lot of noise about what she chooses, but they always allow her the choice.

You might be repelled by such a focus on marriage, as if these intelligent, independent working women didn’t have other things in their lives that needed attention. I dislike Sex and the City for that exact reason. But these fabulous unmarried Muslim women don’t, naturally, have sex in their lives. They are serious and Sofia, for one, is devout. The parts in the story where she tries to find privacy to pray five times a day in an office environment had me howling with laughter. At least she got brownie points for being a diversity statistic. These women also don’t have alcohol in their lives. Without sex and alcohol, this is a novel unshackled from what we’ve been conditioned to think that modern fiction about relationship angst should include. Instead, we can read proper writing about women’s choices and the fuckwittery of men (thank you, Bridget Jones) with serious depth and powerful messages. The characters are so rounded, they existed for weeks in my memory, wondering about what happened to them next. Sofia Khan is also exceedingly modern: texts, emails, letters, conversations, all communication modes blended in the narrative like flavours in a soup. Sometimes they’re blended just a little too whizzingly, producing some hilarious social catastrophes at which anyone who’s pressed Send before rechecking the To list will wince with empathy. I haven’t mentioned all the men that Sofia meets. Nor will I discuss how she meets them, or why they’re really not right for her. This is a superb novel about modern Britain and modern living. Go buy a copy immediately.

Ayisha Malik, Sofia Khan is NOT Obliged (Twenty7, 2015), ebook £4.99, paperback (Jan 2016) £7.99

24 Sept: Gorblimey. They’ve quoted me.

Malik