Title: Our Lady of Alice Bhatti
Author: Mohammed Hanif
Release Date: May 29, 2012
Genre: Literary Fiction, Cultural Fiction (South Asian)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Alice Bhatti has just been accepted as a new nurse at the Sacred Heart Hospital in Karachi, which is surprising since she’s just been released from jail. She has a talent for healing, which she puts to good use as she goes about her days and nights at the hospital. Alice encounters the best and worst of society at the hospital, and as she falls in love and marries a man who is very different from her, she must decide who she is and what she wants.
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is a very difficult novel to describe, much less review. It presents itself as a satire on modern-day Pakistan. It’s refreshing to see a portrait of the “normal” side of Pakistan – these aren’t the terrorists or fundamentalists, nor are they the political and social leaders who are putting Pakistan on the map. No, these are just the ordinary, downtrodden souls of Karachi going about their daily lives.
But underneath that satire is a very serious commentary. Hanif captures beautifully how women are treated in Pakistan. It’s not politics or religion that is holding Pakistan back, Hanif argues. It’s the fact that poor treatment of women is an entrenched characteristic of society. Alice is discriminated against simply because she is a woman, as are all the other women in Our Lady of Alice Bhatti. Women have little say in how their lives progress or what they want day-to-day, but it’s women that have to pay the price and face the consequences when the men around them mess up. It’s sad to see these weak willed men portrayed in the novel who refuse to stand up for women, who accept a society where women are the casualties of their wars.
But for all that brilliance, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti isn’t an easy novel to read. It’s ridiculous to the point of being absurd. The satire gets so heavy at times that readers may quickly tire of it. Alice is a great character, but her whirlwind romance and marriage to Teddy makes little sense. Hanif gives no convincing reason why Alice might fall in love with a man like Teddy; it’s just another part of the satire, but it makes it difficult to enjoy the novel.
While Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is brilliantly written, with memorable characters that leap off the page, the reading experience is somewhat lacking. If the satire had been toned down a bit, it would be easier to take this novel seriously. It’s mundane, following Alice’s daily life, while at the same time it’s absolutely unbelievable. That being said, if you’re fascinated by women’s issues, especially in the Muslim world, this book is an absolute must-read. Hanif’s treatment of women is definitely worth exploring, even if the book as a whole is difficult.