On the surface, Tender Hooks (also published as Duty Free) appears to be a light read, but it soon becomes clear that our nameless narrator’s naive judgements are vehicles for poking fun at the social norms governing Pakistan’s elite, and the inner workings of her closed circle of opinionated, Prada-wearing, back-stabbing friends. The stock subject of familial ties is also ever-present with our narrator being pulled by her shamelessly snobby Aunt Pussy into finding a wife for her ‘bore’ cousin Jonkers. And so begin the trips to visit ‘illegible girls’ with good ‘baggrounds’ (the malapropisms are perfectly selected and made me laugh out loud). The wedding circuit holds the key to Jonkers’ second marriage, and proves fertile ground for acerbic monologues. When she sees one of her closest friends at the biggest wedding of the year, she simply can’t help herself:
"Mulloo was wearing a sequenced sari I’d seen twenty times before and so much of blush that she looked as if she’d just been given two tight slaps. A thin little choker with tiny, tiny diamonds was buried in roles of fat in her throat. She grinned at me. I wondered if I should tell her that she had lipstick on her teeth. She noted my necklace with her slitty little eyes but didn’t compliment. Typical."
Wealthy, cocooned, and oblivious to how bitchy she is, she still manages to perceive herself as a kind-hearted woman of the people who lets ‘buygones be buygones.’
Knowledge of social norms in South Asia will probably make reading some of the scenarios more rewarding, and you can see the plot turns coming from some distance, but that doesn’t take anything away from them when they arrive. It is a cleverly written satire with a strong voice, and a blessed relief too from reading South Asian fiction about family dynasties and war. Funny, biting, clever.