THE HAREM by Safia Fazlul (Tsar), 179 pages, $20.95 paper. Rating: NNN
What does a young Muslim woman tired of the controlling behaviour of men in her culture do to break out?
Farina, daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants to Canada, decides she'll take her life - and those of other women - into her own hands by pimping them out as escorts.
No surprise that the sex industry turns out not to be the road to freedom Farina longs for, but that doesn't detract from the impact of the story. In her debut novel, Fazlul skilfully conveys Farina's dilemma as the bright college dropout sorts out the contradictions. Her mother, she thinks, is as much a slave to her father as a sex worker is to her john. Better to sell yourself and buy some independence.
But Farina's feeling guilty because she's not literally putting her own ass on the line. And she's terrified that Ali, her new boyfriend - a conservative guy who's not always trying to get into her pants - will discover her secret.
Fazlul has a habit of feeding us her ideas through Farina's internal dialogues and conversations with her friends - especially Sabrina and Imrana, who have a stake in the escort agency - rather than letting the action show the way. But her writing is lively, and she knows how to let her characters and their relationships grow, especially when it comes to Farina's relationship to her parents and to Sabrina, who becomes more grasping as the story unfolds.
Like Nisha Pahuja's brilliant documentary The World Before Her, The Harem portrays a no-win situation for women trying to escape both the repression in their own culture and oppressive attitudes toward women in the sex-obsessed West.
A smart story, told from a point of view we see too rarely in Canada. I hope this, unlike many first novels based in part on the writer's own experience, isn't the only tale Fazlul has in her.