Apart from what the title tells us, these stories are about a fundamental difference in cultures. Huma Qureshi writes like a psychotherapist, considering, analysing, explaining, seeking out conflicts, evasions, and discomforts. The clash is between London and Lahore, Britain and Pakistan. The girls who appear in these tales are westernised, but still hostages to their heritage.
The narrator of ‘Superstition’ escapes the shalwar kameez that she has to wear at family dinners on Saturday evenings in suburban London. She is smitten with a boy at a neighbour’s house, and then endures a conspiracy of male, religious dominance: ‘All this happened over an unfortunate teenage kiss.’ If there is fault, it is the boy’s, but the whispering, traditional mothers and aunts reverse the situation and the girl is condemned.
The deep-seated clash of cultures also inhibits what emancipated women can tell their husbands. ‘The space between them’ is always there, always ‘this unspoken shore of misunderstanding’. The feeling creates much of the tension in Qureshi’s stories. The form suits her: she succeeds in a short space in describing her settings and defining her characters; and what concerns her most is to present their behaviour and explain the influences that control it. Mark, who is English, is taken to Lahore by Amina to visit her family. He sees Pakistan from the back seat of a chauffeur-driven car and feels ‘left on the outside looking in’. Amina becomes a different person — she is ‘not like this in London’. She reverts to her mother tongue; her tone of voice ‘chimes her class’. This experience is one of the things he has not been told about.
Qureshi’s stories show a world that is not much understood, and so we are informed of the difficulties that exist for Muslim women who live in conflict between a UK lifestyle and their family upbringing. The clash is forcefully seen in ‘Summer’, which leads to a surprisingly shocking ending, reminiscent of a Graham Greene short story. In ‘Waterlogged’, Shona wonders, in conversation with her B&B host in a depressingly rainy Oxford, if she should mention the novel she has just written about ‘a marriage falling apart’; he is a retired history professor, ‘whose teeth were the colour of wet sand’. There is a bleakness about some of the stories, yet there are notes of optimism that sound from true love; and, as always, amor vincit omnia.