A Sister to Honor

By Lucy Ferriss

(Penguin Publishing Group, $16, 400 pages)

Who is this author?

Lucy Ferriss, who spent considerable time in Pakistan to research her latest novel, is writer-in-residence at Trinity College and has homes in West Hartford and the Berkshires. But her roots are mid-Western, specifically in St. Louis, as her memoir, “Unveiling the Prophet: The Misadventures of a Reluctant Debutante,” demonstrates. Her books include novels and short–story collections, literary criticism, poetry and essays and she has written for The New York Times, Shenandoah and the Georgia Review, among other publications. In 2000, she won the Mid-List First Series Award for “Leaving the Neighborhood and Other Stories.”

What is this book about?

Ferriss’ novel, set in Pakistan and New England, is about family, religion and loyalties, but its main subject is the seemingly unbridgeable clash of customs that divide Western and Middle Eastern cultures, differences so deep that members of each group find it almost impossible to understand how others believe and behave as they do. The story describes the plight of a young Pakistani woman, who enrolls at Smith College to begin a career as a doctor at the urging of her brother, Shahid, who also has enjoyed academic success in America. But when Afia, a modest, religious young woman who is a hard-working student, does something so common to Americans that it is hardly noticed here, she puts her life in danger. What is her transgression? Nothing more than being shown in a photo posted online holding hands with her boyfriend. This outrages her devout Pakistani family, especially her step-brother, Khalid, who then seeks a remedy through an “honor killing.” Will it fall to her beloved brother Shahid to avenge the dishonor, as the family insists?

Why you’ll like it:

Ferriss has tackled a timely, complex and very prickly topic in this book, and to her credit, she helps the reader understand both sides, without expecting them to approve of honor killings. The time she spent living in Pakistan exposed her to ways of thinking very foreign to Western culture and gave her knowledge that provides a strong underpinning to the story of Afia and Shahid.  As America grows ever more entangled with Middle Eastern nations, some as allies and some as adversaries, understanding mindsets so foreign to our own is crucial, and this fiction can help us deal with facts that alarm and astonish.

What others are saying:

Library Journal says: “Ferriss’s latest novel addresses conservative Pakistani values and the immigrant experience and explores the many meanings of honor. Afia Satar is the daughter of a landholding family in northern Pakistan. Brilliant and ambitious, she is sent to college in America along with her brother Shahid, a rising sports star. While Shahid has no qualms about living amid American culture, Afia is held to a much different standard. After photos of her holding a boy’s hand appear on the Internet, her jihadist stepbrother Khalid begins to stir outrage. When Khalid shows up in America to restore the family honor, Afia is suddenly no longer safe, and Shahid is caught in the crossfire. VERDICT This stirring novel explores the psychology of honor killings and Pakistani family life. The swift-moving narrative traverses very different worlds, creating an exquisite tension that lasts well after the novel is over. Recommended for fans of Claire Messud, Jenny White, and readers who like a political slant to their fiction.”

“Ferriss fills one family’s story with the elements of a political thriller. The well-drawn characters and believable settings lead readers to some understanding of how these young people are torn between tradition and modern life, but there are no easy answers,” says Booklist.

“It’s tricky business writing about honor killing, which to our American mainstream culture is horrific and inexplicable. But Ferriss presents a thoughtful and nonjudgmental look through the eyes of a young woman for whom it is a reality. . . An insightful and though-provoking foray into a world so different from ours,” says The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Says Publishers Weekly: “Afia Satar is just another college student, studying hard on a New England campus and dreaming big dreams about becoming a doctor to help the poor village women in her native Pakistan. When she falls in love, she forgets that she is not just any other college co-ed, but a Pashtun girl from a village where the family’s reputation is tightly linked to the daughter’s purity. An innocent picture of her clasping hands with a boy on her college’s website catalyzes her jihadi step-brother to insist Shahid, her older brother who’s also in New England, remove the stain on the family’s honor. Honor is the heartbeat of this novel as the Satar family grapples with their responsibilities and expectations. The Americans—especially Shahid’s squash coach Lissy Hayes—have different ideas of honor. Tribal ties clash with individualism, as Afia and Shahid struggle to find the right path. Both are aware this may not end well. Afia and Shahid’s painful struggle is intricately crafted, and the cultural nuances are evocatively depicted in this thought-proving novel.

When is it available?

Ferriss’ new novel is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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