Broken Verses by Kamila Shamsie is in the first-person point of view of Aasmaani Inqalab, a thirty-something Pakistani woman. Her mother, a charismatic and prominent activist for women’s rights, disappeared and is presumed dead of suicide 14 years before the book opens. Her mother’s lover (“Omi”), a very famous poet, had been incarcerated several times in Pakistan for his radical views and critiques of the government. His body, with evidence of brutal torture, was found two years before her mother’s death. And now, more than a decade after their deaths, Aasmaani still struggles with accepting their disappearance from her life.
The novel opens with Aasmaani taking a job at a local T.V. station in Karachi. She has apparently drifted aimlessly in life since her mother’s disappearance. While at the T.V. station, she receives coded letters forwarded to her by a famous actress who was one of her mother’s closest friends. These letters convince her that either the poet or her mother or both are still alive. She de-codes each letter and becomes obsessed with investigating the circumstances of their alleged deaths.
The plot is interesting and has potential. Unfortunately, it fails in execution. Aasmaani is a self-obsessed whining character who spends an interminable amount of time fretting about not being the center of her mother’s life. This “poor me” stance goes on throughout the novel, ad nauseum. She spends an inordinate amount of time obsessively remembering her mother and alternating between feelings of anger and love toward her for choosing to be with the Poet rather than with her own daughter. These ruminations are tedious and weigh down the novel.
And then there is the issue of Aasmaani’s relationships. She has a strained relationship with her father, her step-mother, and step-sister—three people who continue to shower her with unconditional love. She has a love/hate relationship with the movie star’s son who also happens to be a colleague at the T.V. station and who shares the struggle of having a famous mother. Their dialogue is strained, pretentious, and completely unnatural. They talk in clichés and cite lines from Western poetry and Western movies as if each is trying to outdo the other. People simply don’t talk like that in real life.
Add to the mix references to recent political events and prominent figures in Pakistani politics; an oppressive government; the tensions between religious extremism and civil rights; a halting love affair; Aasmaani’s famous mother as Omi’s muse; a beautiful movie-star whose return to the T.V. screen causes a media frenzy; the mystery of encoded letters; and Aasmaani’s obsessive search for the truth about the deaths of her mother and step-father figure.
Kamila Shamsie has tried to do too much in this novel. And it shows. There is little depth to any of the characters. The dialogue is unnatural. The attempts at lyrical language are blatant and over-written. The mystery lacks luster and ends with a fizzle. And the main character’s interminable whining throughout makes her unlikeable and thoroughly annoying.
The novel is disappointing and lacks the talent Shamsie displays in Home Fire.