Book Review: Should You Read Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal?...(Yes, Probably)
by Katharine ColdironIt is a truth universally acknowledged that Pride and Prejudice will be rewritten, recontextualised, imitated, and adapted to the needs of the zeitgeist until the practice of reading books passes out of existence altogether. Assessing Austen adaptations is a lopsided, subjective undertaking. That is, whether Pride and Prejudice and Zombies stacks up to the original in literary quality isn’t really the point, and a book like Mr. Darcy’s Daughters likely gave one Austen fan exactly what she wanted, while dissatisfying another such that she vowed never again to read a third-party Austen sequel. Ahem. Thus, Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal, is assessable from multiple perspectives. The book is an adaptation of P&P set in Pakistan in the present moment, and as a spin-off, it’s enormous fun. It’s also an excellent gateway book for people who’ve never read Austen and feel intimidated about trying her—even more so than Heyer—and a welcome injection of diversity into the world of Austen fandom. But it hews so closely to the source material that the result is a bit daffy, and it works so hard to be itself that Kamal’s shining wit and tenderness only sometimes bubble to the surface of her heavy intentions.
- Too-close names. Jane and Lizzie Bennet are Jena and Alys Binat. Mary, Kitty, and Lydia are Mari, Qitty, and Lady. Darcy is Darsee, Bingley is Bungles, Charlotte is Sherry, Wickham is Wickaam…you get the idea. This starts to feel parodic instead of useful or delightful.
- Too-close plot. The plot is exactlythe same as the plot of P&P, moved into the modern era and the setting of Pakistan (more on that later), like a song transposed into another key without a single note of difference in the melody. The precision of this transposition gives the book a feeling of going through the motions, rather than a joyful exploration of a plot’s twists and turns.
- Confusion about the existence of Austen. The characters in Unmarriageableare clearly aware of P&P, because they talk about the book several times, but all the coincidences between P&Pand the characters’ actual lives—the way every character and event in P&Phas a corresponding character and event in Alys Binat’s life—is somehow never seized upon. That’s a difficult balance to strike in a book that adapts another, but acknowledging the existence of the inspiration without acknowledging similarities makes the characters seem oblivious.
And now for the positives:
- Shifts in the characters. Kamal has remolded many of the characters in P&P usefully or interestingly. For example, Mary is a little better in this adaptation. Her religious fervor points toward Islam instead of Christianity, and Mari’s selective application of the religion’s strict (often contradictory) rules makes for a lot of humor. She’s a total pill, and it’s great. Lydia, meanwhile, is a little worse, as Lady is childish, bullying, scheming, and self-centered. Lydia Bennet is all those things, too, but Lady is a viper, not a blunderer. The best shifts are in the smallest characters: Annie dey Bagh (Anne de Bourgh) has an autoimmune disorder, actual dialogue, and a Nigerian boyfriend, while Jujeena Darsee has much more direction and voice than Georgiana. Raghav Kumar (Colonel Fitzwilliam) is gay, which of course he is, that’s been obvious for decades. The older generation, Mr. and Mrs. Binat and their siblings and friends, have richer backstories and better definition.
- It’s a shorter book. In a mortal lifespan, this is an underrated quality in books.
- Added scenes. Multiple scenes that exist only in letters or later conversations in P&P are laid out in full glory in Unmarriageable, which is great fun. Mr. Kaleen’s proposal to Sherry is both hilarious and moving, while Bungles’s proposal to Jena is as sweet and romantic as anyone could want.
- The present day in Pakistan is a perfect context for the two-century-old story of P&P, and I would not have known this if Kamal hadn’t written the book. Moreover, Regency-era white Europeans’ marriage and money problems being transposed into modern Pakistan is not just a gimmick. It’s a necessary recontextualization, in a time when publishing cannot ignore the extraordinary diversity of the English-speaking (and -reading) population. Readers of color can feel more representationally present in Austen, with Kamal as an interpreter, and white readers can reexperience Austen in fascinating, unfamiliar surroundings. Everyone wins.
- Plenty of quick minds have reworked Austen in modern idiom (Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s “Texts” from Sense and Sensibility and Emma, and Twitter’s own Drunk Austen, for instance), but this book is an entire compendium of it. From the big proposal scene:
“Will you marry me?” Alys stared at him. “I love you.” This was so preposterous, Alys let out a hearty laugh. “My admission is a joke to you?” “Is this a prank?” Alys looked around. “Is there a hidden camera somewhere?”
- General delight. When the book is able to get out of its own way, to stop holding itself in such a meticulous posture against Austen’s most famous work, it’s a wonderful experience. The details are the best part; Bungles’s sisters (whose names rhyme) call everyone “babes,” Kaleen is a physiatrist who is constantly mistaken for a psychiatrist, and Darsee and Alys bond over a book he recommends to her.
*****Interested in reading the book? You can find our limited signed editions of Unmarriageable here. Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian, LARB, Horoscope.com, and many other places. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com. You can find her on twitter @ferrifrigida. This review of Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal originally appeared on Jane to Georgette. It is reprinted here with permission.