Title: The Sweetness of Tears
Author: Nafisa Haji
Release Date: May 17, 2011
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Genre: Multicultural Fiction, Literary Fiction
Rating: 3 out of 5
Jo March was raised an evangelical Christian by her loving parents and has never questioned her place in their world. But after taking a high school biology course, Jo realizes something shocking: her eyes, and those of her twin brother, are brown, yet both her parents’ eyes are blue. According to Mendel and genetics, two blue-eyed parents cannot produce offspring with brown eyes. Before she leaves for college, Jo works up the nerve to ask her mother about her parentage, and her mother confesses that her biological father was a Pakistani man named Sadiq. Jo begins to delve into her past, first by trying to find Sadiq, but her search for identity gets swept away in the tragic events of 9/11.
Nafisa Haji approaches 9/11 and the Pakistani and Muslim identity from a very unique perspective in The Sweetness of Tears: that of an evangelical Christian family. While Jo isn’t a fundamentalist about her faith, she does ascribe to what her parents have taught her. As a result, it’s a world-shaking shock when she discovers that the man she has called her father all her life isn’t biologically related to her. At the same time, though, it makes her curious about her Pakistani heritage and desirous of exploring it further.
Jo is a bright, capable young woman who appeals to the reader from the very beginning of the story. Her confusion, and subsequent determination, is both understanding and inspiring. Because she is the first (and arguably primary) narrator in the novel, she has the reader’s sympathy from beginning to end.
The overall message of The Sweetness of Tears is one of peace and compassion. Haji takes all these people, from so many different backgrounds, and brings them together in a beautiful way. Though there are so many ways for the characters in this book to be divided, to turn against one another, they choose to celebrate the things that make them similar, that make them family. It’s a heartwarming theme that readers will appreciate, especially in these divisive times.
At the same time, Haji highlights difficult cultural, social, and political issues within her book. The treatment of prisoners by the United States during the War on Terror is a central topic of the book, as are women’s rights in the Muslim world. Haji deftly turns portions of this novel into a social commentary without becoming overly preachy, and as a result, it’s a wonderful chance to learn and broaden your horizons.
Haji accomplishes this by telling the story from multiple points of view, and here she isn’t quite as successful as the reader would hope. The stories become jumbled and muddled, and it’s easy to forget who the narrator is. The characters don’t have distinctive enough voices to be able to tell them apart just by tone or dialogue, and as a result, it can be frustrating at times. Additionally, the reader doesn’t have a real emotional connection to the characters, so the story can feel contrived, especially towards the end when everything is tied up in one neat little package.
Despite my issues with The Sweetness of Tears, Nafisa Haji is an author I’m going to keep my eye on. She’s a talented author and has a lot to say about political, social, and cultural Pakistani-American relations. This book definitely had some rough spots, but I’m confident that Haji will smooth them out in future novels, as she is a talented writer.