“It is a truth universally acknowledged” that a Jane Austen story must be in want of a rewrite. Austen completed only six novels herself, but other writers’ reinterpretations keep multiplying.
This year Soniah Kamal enters the field with “Unmarriageable,” a delightful translation of “Pride and Prejudice” that effectively weaves 18th-century England into 21st-century Pakistan.
Here the Bennet family becomes the Binats, a once-upper-crust family fallen on hard times and beset by ruinous rumors. The times have changed enough that the five unmarried Binat daughters could work outside the home, but they are still expected to find husbands and settle down. Their dim hopes brighten with an invitation to a wedding that will put them in the company of men “in possession of a good fortune,” as Austen would say.
The plot is no surprise. Kamal has no intention of interfering with the basics of Austen’s best-loved tale. Alys, the spunky second daughter, will spar with Mr. Darsee, while her beloved sister Jena suffers for the love of Mr. Bingla — until the youngest sister’s escapade with that wastrel Wickaam threatens to taint them all. But Kamal knows that it’s the journey rather than the destination that keeps Austen fans coming back, and she winds interesting variations on the themes to provide a tour of her native country and update some of the anachronistic elements of the original story.
“Unmarriageable” introduces readers to a rich Muslim culture. It’s Pakistan circa 2001, when women’s rights were expanding but religious attitudes were becoming more strict. Austen’s pious sister Mary becomes Mari, a Qu’ran-quoting moralizer to her more secular family members. Kamal takes another page from Austen, touching the wider political world ever so lightly while focusing on the domestic scene. She observes family dramas with a satiric eye and treats readers to sparkling descriptions of a dayslong wedding ceremony, with its high-fashion pageantry and higher social stakes. She does in words what Gurinder Chadha did in film with “Bride and Prejudice,” set in India.
Now a writer and teacher living in Georgia, Kamal shows off her status as a card-carrying member of the Jane Austen Society of North America. Fellow Janeites will catch her dropping names from Austen’s real life. Less orthodox Austen fans will smirk at references to the BBC “Pride and Prejudice” miniseries featuring Colin Firth’s wet shirt scene.
Kamal’s literary chops also are on display as Alys, a high school English teacher, discusses famous English writers and pointedly wonders whether Western readers will ever know as much about famous South Asian writers in return. She’s got a good point.
“O’Connor, Austen, Alcott, Wharton,” one character notes. “Characters’ emotions and situations are universally applicable across cultures, whether you’re wearing an empire dress, shalwar kurta, or kimono.”
Maureen McCarthy is a former Star Tribune assignment editor.