By Laura Jones
It is 1998 and the leader of the free world is under fire after an affair with a young intern. Meanwhile, in a corner of South London, sisters Sufya and Zarina Malik have also committed a sin: they are in their thirties and still not married.
Now the unexpected return of their childhood playmate spells the chance of a happy ending: but only for one of them.
Undying is an exciting and thought-provoking story about family, love, unity and rivalry set within a British Muslim community. Written by sisters, Ambreen Hameed and Uzma Hameed, it is divided into two distinct books, The Kinship of Djinns and My Uncle’s Son, which together take readers on a journey along the often complicated and sometimes fantastical, avenues of Sufya and Zarina Malik’s worlds.
Set in 1998, at a time of growing political uncertainty, we are first introduced to Sufya and Zarina as they await the return of their childhood friend and sweetheart, Heathrow. Whilst the family elders feel certain that his return signals a much-awaited marriage for Sufya, younger sister Zarina has other ideas and becomes determined to win Heathrow for herself, resulting in a complicated love triangle. As the story unfolds, the rivalry between the sisters deepens, whilst rising tensions in the Muslim community threaten long-lasting repercussions on the Malik family.
Even though book one, The Kinship of Djinns, focuses heavily on the unravelling relationship between Sufya and Zarina and their desire to secure a happy ending with Heathrow, it does so with a degree of comedy. As the eldest, Sufya has a natural sense of order and refers to evolutionary biology as a way of making sense of relationships. Perhaps it is inevitable then that a chimpanzee called Darwin feels threatened by Heathrow’s presence around Sufya and a kiss is the only resolution! As the younger daughter, Zarina is constantly battling with the feeling of coming second to Sufya and decides to use magic to guarantee Heathrow’s love. When her first spell appears to go awry (following a hairbrush mix-up!), Zarina takes drastic action, conjuring a much-feared and Humphrey Bogart-styled, Djinn to propel her to happiness. Yet, in doing so, she creates dark and perilous forces around the people she loves the most.
In book two, My Uncle’s Son, the light-heartedness gives way to a more sombre and political narrative, with more direct references to extremist ideologies and global dangers. Sufya and Zarina must learn to deal with their
past and their future, as they come face-to-face with their raw emotions, caused by years of resentment and rivalry. They must face their own loss, grief and need for revenge if they are to have a chance at reconciliation and protect those closest to them, including each other.
One of the greatest strengths of this story has to be in its construction. Told in alternating perspectives by the two fictional sisters, each chapter becomes a reflection of the narrator with Sufya’s passion for scientific fact and reasoning contrasting, yet complimenting, the more dramatic and creative style of Zarina. But, more than that is the intricate nature of the writing from real-life sisters, Ambreen and Uzma. Undying is the result of an in-depth project, taking more than ten years to bring to publication. It has received a wealth of support from high-profile industry specialists such as Curtis Brown and The Literacy Consultancy. Of their shared writing experience, Ambreen notes that it was “a rich experience,” although “challenging at times,” whilst Uzma regards the process as “fascinating.” Even though the chapters were planned out in terms of content, both sisters wrote independently and often surprised the other with the intricacies and depth included in Sufya and Zarina’s rivalry. As Uzma comments, “the novel embodies a very common experience: no two siblings have the same versions of the same events.” This is certainly evident throughout the story, with Sufya and Zarina often interpreting events in very different ways and perhaps choosing not to acknowledge the emotional impact this has on them and the rest of the family.
Undying mixes satire with dark, black comedy to challenge perceptions. It challenges the innocence of childhood, family dynamics and the media-tainted view of historical events. There are moments of shock, moments of hilarity and moments of extreme eccentricity but these combine to create a piece of work that is of significant value and highly relevant in today’s world: a story that serves as a reminder that fiction and reality are never far apart and that choices are sometimes made for us.
For more information, including reviews and links to the books, click here. Content warning, books include child abuse, violence and terrorismThank you to Ambreen Hameed and Uzma Hameed for the review copy of Undying book one and two.