Daniyal Mueenuddin’s first collection is exemplary of modern short fiction done right. Dalia Sofer, in her review of the book for The New York Times, compares it to watching a game of blackjack unfold between shrewd, calculating players: ‘[s]ome bust, others surrender. But in Mueenuddin’s world, no one wins.’
The eight stories of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders are set in north-east Pakistan and revolve around the members, servants and associates of the wealthy and influential Harouni family. Tied together by their obligations and the harsh world they inhabit, Mueenuddin’s characters are faced with the near-constant struggle of negotiating their way through a hierarchical, feudal culture.
His women are highly nuanced characters caught in a tangle of patriarchal exchanges. In such a society, sex is their most effective weapon. But Mueenuddin’s men, too, are schemers to the last. Manipulation is the name of the game, and more often than not the players lose.
In amongst the power plays and social bargains Mueenuddin gives us glimpses of dreams, longing, lost pasts and looming futures. His stories are charged with emotional potency, haring at breakneck speed along the banks of the Indus as much as they gently seat us beneath the boughs of a hoary rosewood.
There are some niggles, as there are bound to be with a first collection. The characterisation is not always as effective as it could be, sidelined for background information that we could receive in other, more subtle ways. Mueenuddin is in the difficult position of writing about Pakistan for a western audience that, deliberately or otherwise, remains largely ignorant about daily life in the Lahore region. The great strength of Mueenuddin’s writing, made all the more important because of the novelty of his collection, is that he neither patronises nor alienates his audience – we are given enough context to appreciate the texture of his stories for ourselves rather than being spoon-fed to excess.