In This Debut Novel, Family Ties Bind, Even From Afar

By Taymour Soomro
243 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.

One of the great things about writing is that, in the end, it doesn’t matter where you came from or went to school. Walt Whitman, Jessica Mitford, Truman Capote, Maya Angelou and Hart Crane had not a semester of college between them.

A new generation of Pakistani American and Pakistani British writers, however, are educated to the teeth, as if their fallback job, should the humble rut that is fiction writing not pan out, might be prime minister.

Take Mohsin Hamid, the author of “Exit West” (Princeton, Harvard Law School), or Daniyal Mueenuddin, the author of “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” (Dartmouth, Yale Law School). Now comes Taymour Soomro with his first novel, “Other Names for Love.” He is a graduate of Cambridge University and Stanford Law School.

I would not want to stare down the firm of Hamid, Mueenuddin & Soomro across a courtroom. Courts, like novels, are venues for narrative persuasion.

Soomro’s novel is about what happens when Pakistani parents send their child abroad to be expensively educated and he does not want to come back, even when sorely needed.

The protagonist of “Other Names for Love” is Fahad, a sensitive young lad whose father, Rafik, is a self-made bull of a man. “His father was a cannonball, an avalanche, something giant crashing through the jungle,” Soomro writes. Rafik owns vast acreages of farmland he cleared himself; he dabbles in politics at a high level.

When Fahad is 16, his father drags him against his will to spend the summer at the family’s rural estate. Rafik wants to make a man of Fahad. Perhaps one day Fahad will oversee the family’s rice and other farms.

Fahad, who is bound for Oxford, has an awakening of a different sort. He finds himself intensely attracted to Ali, a tough and canny local boy. Ali is attracted to Fahad, too. Their sex is pugilistic, as if bodies were all elbows, shins and teeth.

The first half of “Other Names for Love” is the best half. Friction builds, not just between Rafik and Fahad but between Rafik and almost everyone. He has many enemies, most of them deserved.

When a relative named Mousey returns from London — Rafik had helped chase him out of Pakistan — and asks for the family land that is owed to him, the clashes are intense. A scene of intentional crop destruction, an act of revenge, lands with primal force.

Taymour Soomro, whose debut novel is “Other Names for Love.”Credit…Jorge Monedero

“Other Names for Love” needs this friction. Soomro writes clean, vivid sentences and this novel has a certain elegance, but it lacks a worldview and the kind of drilling insights that would take it to another level.

I did not stop, once, to pencil a curse word of admiration in the margins, which sometimes means nothing but sometimes means a lot. When the second half begins to drift, the absence of electric drive-by observation and intellection becomes more apparent.

We meet Fahad years later. He lives in London, where he has found his social circle. He’s a successful writer. His partner, Alex, cooks beef daube, the dish Mrs. Ramsay serves at an important moment in Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse.” Fahad wears gaudy clothes and piles his hair on the top of his head as if he were wearing a helmet. His father visits and tells him he looks like a woman.

Fahad is again called home, this time by his mother. The family is facing ruin. But Fahad remains bitter about being sent to the West. He thinks:

It would not be sporting to give away more, but Fahad returns to witness the chaos of loss and old age. He gets back in touch with Ali. Perhaps, his reeling father thinks, Fahad will write a book about him.

In an interview, Mueenuddin said about the Pakistani people: “We live much more social lives than in the West. Everyone is tied to everyone. It is like puppies laying on top of each other. People live very entangled interlocked lives.”

The truth of this statement is everywhere apparent in Soomro’s novel. When Rafik’s big life begins to unravel, one loose thread undoes many others.

“Other Names for Love” delivers one message powerfully: You will never, no matter how far away you get, be beyond your family’s power to wound.

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